Non-EEA Visas: Inshore Fishing — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 17th July 2018.

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Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative, Moray 9:30 am, 17th July 2018

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will come on to that point. Skills are important. If a local workforce has those skills, that is great and we want to encourage it. Indeed, the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association said in its briefing that this year has been its best year for recruitment, with 30 new people coming from local communities, doing their courses and ready to go out on to fishing boats.

But 30 is not enough to ensure all our boats are properly manned as we get ready to leave the common fisheries policy and the European Union—and, hopefully, to fish far more in our waters with more of our boats. The association believes it will take 10 to 15 years to have enough local employment to be able to fully crew the boats. In that period, we can either decide to do nothing and let the boats lie idle and go out of commission, or we can do something about it. As I said, there was a successful scheme that worked for two years between 2010 and 2012, which we can use in this country.

I want to spend a bit more time talking about skills because fishing has been deemed an unskilled form of occupation. I take great exception to that: I could not leave this place, go immediately on to a boat for several days and successfully deal with catching and processing fish. That is a skill in itself, and we should recognise it as such. As Mr Campbell said, it is a skill we need and one we should be looking for.

After Mr Scott, Mr Sutherland and Mr Davidson visited me in March, I wrote to the chief executive of UK Visas and Immigration about what they had raised with me as well as the skill level of our fishermen and those we are trying to encourage into the industry. I said, “I invite you to spend a day on a fishing boat in Moray to see for yourself the skills involved in the profession,” and was disappointed when the reply came with no answer to that point. Interestingly, the chief executive decided to ignore my invitation—I cannot believe anyone would ignore a kind invitation to come to Moray, let alone one that included a trip on a fishing boat. The reply did say, “We do not consider such workers to be unskilled, but they are not sufficiently skilled to meet the skills threshold for authorisation or permission to work under tier 2 of the points-based system, which is reserved for graduate-level employment.”

I say as a member of the Home Affairs Committee that we must look at that skill level and how we determine skills. I will be careful in my use of quotations, because David Goodhart, who I quoted at last week’s meeting of the Committee when we were questioning the Home Secretary, took great exception to my confusing his words. I paraphrased him in saying—these are not his words—that he believed that some industries where there is a local skills shortage and for which we cannot recruit non-EEA individuals should wither and die.

Afterwards, David Goodhart contacted me on Twitter to say that I had totally confused his position. I will now read out his words precisely to get them properly on the record. We had a conversation in which he said that he believes that if we cannot recruit locally in certain parts of the country, we should not use the immigration system to get people in to do the jobs. I asked whether he meant he wanted to give up on fishing. He said:

“Not on fishing in its entirety, no, but in certain parts of the country perhaps, yes.”

Mr Goodhart was quite clear that parts of the sector in parts of the country should be allowed to stop—basically, that is parts of Moray, with Mr Scott and Mr Johnson, as well as in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, parts of north-east Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom where they cannot get a labour force and it may take 10 to 15 years to ensure there are enough local people. I am sure Mr Goodhart will be tweeting me right now to say once again that I have confused his position.

I do not agree with Mr Goodhart. We should not give up on these vital industries, which have been the mainstay of our communities for so many years. Many communities in Moray have far fewer fishing boats than I would like, but those who want to be part of this great industry should be allowed to remain and flourish. If they need crew from non-EEA countries for that, we as a Government and indeed Parliament should ensure that that happens.

I mention Parliament, because this is not just a Scottish Conservative issue or Conservative issue. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, a member of the Liberal Democrats, had a debate on it, as I said; Angus Brendan MacNeil has had meetings with the Minister about it; and Democratic Unionist party Members have also been in meetings with representative bodies and others. There is consensus across Parliament and across the parties.

When there is a Scottish debate in this Chamber or on the Floor of the House it can often be rather fraught, with much to-ing and fro-ing and disagreement across the Benches. There may be some disagreement today, but ultimately we all want the same thing: a relatively simple solution to a problem causing significant issues in our industry. Whether on the current problem of skills shortages or many others, it is important that the Minister notes that Members on both sides of the House and from all political parties are all saying, “Let’s get this sorted. Let’s do something about it.”

I also want to focus on my party’s manifesto from 2017. Much has changed since that election, but the points made in our manifesto have not. We said:

“Decades of profound economic change have left their mark on coastal communities around Britain” and that we want to ensure that that situation changes going forward. We can stand by our manifesto commitment and ensure that we have the right people in the right numbers working on our fishing boats. Without them, we risk losing these inshore fishing vessels and a major part of our fishing industry.

I also want to focus on the arbitrary 12-mile limit, which annoys many fishermen. As I said, they can recruit non-EEA workers to fish at 12.1 miles, but not at 11.9 miles or 12 miles. That means we are fishing based on visa regulations, not on where the fish are or where they should be caught. That is nonsensical. How can it be right that our skippers must determine where they fish based on visa rules for recruiting staff rather than where the fish are and where they should be caught? That is not right, and it must change.

Several right hon. and hon. Members from across the House want to speak in the debate. I am grateful for that and for the cross-party support I had to secure the debate. I also make reference to the Backbench Business Committee, which was gracious in allowing us to have the debate today, which is important.

In response to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the Immigration Minister said she was considering the report of the Migration Advisory Committee, which will not report until September. However, as I have said—I hope the Minister has heard this—we are not looking for a new solution or to consider the points of that committee, because it will surely come up with the same answers we have. This is an immediate problem, so we do not need to wait until September to find out what will happen and whether it will get worse. This problem exists now, and it also has a solution now. We do not need to wait for that committee to tell us the answer, because it is simple: reintroduce the system we had in 2010 to 2012, with caveats ensuring proper welfare standards for non-EEA workers, and allow our fishermen that sea of opportunity they want to use.

The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance said in its briefing that the new policy would provide for “controlled and limited immigration.” The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association and the Orkney Fisheries Association both say that just 60 experienced fishermen from outside the EEA would be required to crew the inshore fleet to the necessary levels and provide the volume of landings needed for the onshore factories to operate at a sustainable level. We need just 60 experienced non-EEA workers to ensure sufficient people in Orkney and Shetland and in the Western Isles—just one is all Douglas Scott is looking for. When we spoke on the harbour at Lossiemouth on Friday all he wanted was one non-EEA worker to take the strain away from him, to relieve the pressure and to ensure that his fishing boat can operate to the best of its ability.

We are not looking for a huge influx or to change targets. We are looking for the Government to be considerate and to listen to the views of the industry. The industry is crying out for that. It is a small problem in terms of the number of people involved, but it is huge for the communities involved—stretching north to south and east to west. It is a huge problem given the issues resulting from not being able to recruit non-EEA workers: boats tied up and left idle and fishermen going out on their own in dangerous conditions without the necessary support.

The solution to that huge problem is for a small fraction of our immigration policy to be changed. The reintroduction of the policy from 2010 to 2012 could have a huge benefit to our industry, to the Mr Scotts and to fishermen across the country. That is why I was so keen to ensure that this debate went ahead, and why I am interested to hear the response from the Minister for Security. Although the Immigration Minister cannot be with us today, I know she took on board the points raised by all right hon. and hon. Members during last week’s Adjournment debate. We need a solution to this issue—and quickly.

The Immigration Minister has agreed to come to Scotland during the summer recess—she did not agree to get on a fishing boat in Moray, but if the Security Minister would like to take up that offer, he would be most welcome. We need as many people as possible to go to those communities, listen to the Mr Scotts and others, and hear about the problems caused by the policy and the benefits that this small change could make to people’s communities, boats and industry.

As I said, leaving the CFP and the European Union brings great opportunities for Scotland and across the UK. Let us not be brought down by the stubborn refusal of the Government to consider a sensible solution that is staring us in the face. I hope that the Minister and Government will review this policy and come up with a solution that meets the needs of fishermen in Moray, and across Scotland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.