The fishermen I have met in Ayrshire and at Westminster have advised me that the fishing industry is having difficulty attracting workers from within the UK to join fleets. It is expensive to operate and maintain a fishing vessel, and few skippers can afford to have their boats tied up at the quayside for any length of time, particularly when that is because of the lack of experienced and skilled crew members. Succession planning for a skilled labour force in the fishing industry undoubtedly has its challenges, particularly given that the younger generation, whether family members or from outwith the family circle, do not always see it as an attractive career. There is a perception among some people, rightly or wrongly, that the current generation is put off by the early starts, the fact that there are no guaranteed return times, the unpredictable weather conditions and the hard graft that is undoubtedly involved in going to sea. It would not be seen by their friends as a “cool” occupation. Yet, as many in the Chamber know, it can be a very rewarding career.
Regrettably, careers advice sessions nowadays are not likely to focus on fishing as an occupation. Perhaps we should encourage people to go to sea and earn a living as their forefathers did. Yet schools focus on healthy eating, and the health service promotes to the public the importance of vitamin D, of which I understand fish is an excellent source. Local workers, across the age range, may turn out in the summer months, when the money is good, the weather is better and it is safer at sea. However, skippers go out in all seasons and need to be able to rely on dedicated, skilled and capable crew members.
Given the succession and recruitment difficulties, many fishermen who own their boats seek to employ migrant workers, often from the Philippines, who have previously gained experience from having worked in their country of origin on tuna fishing boats. They are said to have a can-do attitude to work, and to be skilled and reliable employees. In his recent Adjournment debate on the subject, Mr Carmichael highlighted the fact that 800 non-EEA nationals are employed in the catching sector in the UK. However, work permits and visas prove problematic for Filipino workers and for others from the Indian ocean and south sea islands.
It is important that the Government—and it lies with them, as Angus Brendan MacNeil said—should consider liaising with, and building on the previous involvement of, the relevant foreign embassies. I understand that those embassies assisted with seaman’s books to facilitate migrants’ compliance with the law. In the past, discretionary visas, which I believe were issued for two years, attracted those workers, who were happy to come to the UK, including Scotland. On visas, skippers of boats were obliged to provide onshore accommodation and confirm the condition of their boats, as is quite right. They should be safe—and they are, in the majority of, if not all, cases. I understand that the issuing of such visas may have ended simply because a small minority of workers failed to respect the requirement to return home. However, why should that failure condemn the majority who did faithfully comply and whose services proved to be an invaluable asset to the skippers and the fishing industry? Transit visas are currently available, but they restrict such non-EEA nationals to working outwith the 12-mile limit. The very term “inshore fishing vessels” reflects the fact that not all vessels are suitable to go further afield. Also, the best catch at any given time may not be beyond the 12-mile limit.
If the fishing industry is to survive—that opportunity awaits—and, indeed, prosper and more boats are not to languish in harbours, we must take action. That cannot be tomorrow or the next day, or in September or October. We need that action now, to facilitate such workers’ entry, employment, safety and welfare. Yes, of course it must be policed, regulated and enforced, but not to the detriment of our fishing fleet or of a great opportunity to sustain but also expand it. To do that, we need the workers in question to be able to join fleets in Scotland and throughout the UK. In the long term, thought should be given to encouraging young people to make a career in the industry, as used to happen. As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said, the numbers in fishing communities in the islands of the west coast may be dwindling, but fishing could still prove an excellent career in future. I ask the Minister to recognise and resolve the issues we are debating, without delay.