Backbench business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 25th May 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered visa arrangements for inshore industry fishing crew.
This is a massive issue for myself and all of us here. We have a deep interest in this subject, and we come once again with a request. As the Minister knows, in January this year I had the opportunity to meet him and discuss this issue. I brought along my hon. Friend Carla Lockhart and two reps from the fishing organisations in Northern Ireland, because we had some really deep concerns with where we are going and the importance of where we are about. I will outline the case for fishing and visas.
I thank all hon. Members for being here, and the Minister as well. He will know that when I put forward my case, I always try to do it in a constructive fashion and in a way that tries to get to a solution. I try to make everything I do solution focused and solution based; I know that other Members will try to do the same thing, but I want to make that point to start with.
The fishing industry in Northern Ireland supports about 1,400 jobs. It is the single biggest employer in the communities of Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie, in my constituency of Strangford. I represent the fishermen in Ardglass and Kilkeel, even though they are not my constituents; their MP does not attend here because of the parliamentary oath, so they ask me to be their representative on matters through the fish producer organisations. Each of those communities relies on its fishing industry, and their fishing industry relies on access to Northern Ireland’s inshore waters.
My case will be specific to Northern Ireland, unlike the request that I will make—I will tell the Minister my request. Mr Carmichael and I spoke this morning, and I think his request will be similar. I also discussed the matter with my friends and colleagues on the Government side before the debate, so I think that we will all ask for the same thing. We are not asking for anything really gigantic, but we are looking for a small, solution-based way forward that we feel may be just what we need to get us over the line.
Why are we in this crisis? Affordable food that is healthy and sustainable is a good thing for all of us. No one has enjoyed seeing the cost of the weekly shop rise, and it is to the benefit of all UK citizens to keep food costs low, but we cannot have everything. If that is to happen, the simple reality we must accept is that it will be harder to entice UK workers into food production. The fishing industry can testify to that, having seen its demographic change towards the increasing employment of foreign workers over the past 30 years.
I have been involved with the fishing sector all my political life, which is quite a long time. I started in 1985 as a councillor, representing the peninsula area where Portavogie is. All that time, my brother was involved in fishing, and many of my friends were as well. Over those 30-odd years, we have seen a greater dependence and reliance on foreign workers.
I anticipate that we will hear the same sort of thing from the Minister that we heard from him in the main Chamber today—namely, that we should be growing local labour. Does the hon. Gentleman hear from his own constituents, as I do, that that labour simply is not there, and that there are reasons why local young people, in particular, are not going into the fishing industry? That is basically because, for decades, they have been told that this is an industry in decline that has no future. We will not turn that perception around overnight when the problem that the boats have is in the here and now.
I thank my friend and colleague for that comment. I agree. I see it in Portavogie, in Ardglass and in Kilkeel. I will give an example: the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation and the Irish Fish Producers Organisation put an advert out—when we were in the EU, by the way—to try to galvanise workers. Some 45 people inquired, five people responded to say that they would be interested in the job, and only one turned up. Whenever they did an advertisement across the whole EU, that was all the interest that there was, so there is an evidential base to prove the case that the right hon. Gentleman refers to.
I see in my constituency that people are not interested. Fishing is a hard job. It is one of the most dangerous jobs: more people are killed in the fishing sector than in many other sectors across the United Kingdom. People are going into other jobs, as it is a hard job. I remember going down into the bowels of one of those fishing boats in Portavogie one day. I said, “And where do you sleep?” The fisherman said, “In that wee place there.” We are born in a foetal position, and that is the way they sleep. It is impossible to know how anybody could ever sleep on a boat that is tossing about in the sea. The point is: it is a hard job.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the cramped living conditions on a fishing boat. When I was at school, I had a job painting fishing boats, so I was aware of the conditions. I have never been out in a fishing boat; if anybody watching this wants to offer me the opportunity, I will gladly take it up. He will have seen the conditions not just for the deck crew, the deck hands and the people we are talking about giving visas to; the skippers and the home-based crew of these vessels are in the same conditions.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He understands, as we all do, the practicalities, physical problems, obstructions and difficulties when it comes to fishing. We welcome foreign workers, and we need them. I gave the case of the two positions advertised right across Europe, when we were in the EU, and how many people inquired, how many said that they would take the job, and how many turned up. Foreign workers are now a vital and vibrant part of our fishing culture. They help us to supply the affordable food that every UK shopper wants to see. They do so much for us, but we still cannot offer them the opportunity to come to the UK on a visa that is a good fit for the important work that they do.
We have a problem, but as I said before, I am solution focused, and I believe that we have a solution. I will put it to the Minister and hope that he can give us some flexibility in the process, which we can then take back to our people. The problem is that Northern Ireland’s fishing fleet is penalised simply because of geography. Our position near the Isle of Man and the west coast of Scotland means that Northern Ireland vessels do not have the same easy access to waters outside the 12 miles enjoyed by fishing interests on the east coast of England, for example, or in Scotland. Consequently, our reliance on access to inshore waters means that employing crew on transit visas is no longer an option for fishing vessels in Northern Ireland, which is one of the problems.
We had the opportunity to meet the Minister in January this year, which was a chance to put forward a solution. I can probably add to the solution that we had at the time, because the two fish producers organisations in Northern Ireland, in connection and partnership with other fishing organisations in Scotland and indeed in England, put forward the suggestion that foreign workers could learn the English language before they come here, in a college in Sri Lanka that they are setting up. I will add another angle to that, but that is one of the solutions that the fishing organisations themselves are putting forward. It is practical, and it is costing them. They are not asking the Government for any money in that process; they feel that they can put it forward.
Our vessels are set to see their labour costs rise by up to 40% as they change from employing workers on transit visas to skilled visas—a cost that those in other parts of the country, by virtue of accident or geography, do not have to meet. That creates an unfairness where due to Home Office rules a fisherman fishing in one part of the United Kingdom is forced to pay up to 40% more for his crew than another fishing elsewhere in the UK. Northern Ireland’s fishing industry welcomes the pay protections the skilled visa system brings. Nobody decries that; nobody says, “Don’t do it”—we all accept and understand it. Indeed, David Duguid and I were talking about that in the voting lobby the night before last, because we understand that it is not an issue. The fishing sector is moving towards accepting it.
Northern Ireland’s fishing industry does not begrudge paying our international fishermen what they are worth, but it is clearly unfair that those who pay skilled-visa salaries can be undercut by those who do not, simply through accidents of geography. The Home Office will, of course, argue that the skilled visa system meets Northern Ireland’s fishermen’s needs. In some ways, particularly in how it improves the freedoms enjoyed by foreign fishermen when ashore, it is a very positive step forward. The situation is not, however, quite that simple.
The International Labour Organisation’s work in fishing convention, ILO 188, is an important piece of legislation, of which the UK is a signatory. It protects the welfare of fishermen. It rules, for example, that a fisherman must have his repatriation flight paid for at his employer’s expense, and that his employer should provide his food at sea. Northern Ireland’s vessel owners willingly do both those things already—they are happy to.
The legislation, however, is effectively legally mandating benefits in kind that push the cost of employment up in ways that were not considered when skilled visas and their corresponding salary levels were devised. There needs to be a better understanding of that. Other employers who utilise skilled visas do not have to bear those costs, but fishing vessels do. Northern Ireland’s fishermen have asked for the policy to be applied in a fair, considered and even-handed way. We do not ask for anything that is not achievable or possible. That is why I look to the Minister for a better understanding and a positive response.
I ask the Minister and every MP in the Chamber to put themselves in the position of a Northern Ireland skipper for a moment. Imagine being in the southern Irish sea, wanting to access fishing grounds inside 12 miles of the shore but being unable to because there are transit visa crew onboard. Mr Vickers, imagine that you have tried to recruit skilled visa crew members, but those capable of passing the English-language requirement do not yet exist in sufficient numbers to make that option viable. Looking out of the wheelhouse window of the boat as it is tossed about on the sea, you see a French vessel fishing happily in the area that you are not allowed to work in. It niggles a bit when we are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and our fishermen do not have the same freedoms as those from the rest of Europe.
The French vessel is allowed to work in UK waters because of the Brexit deal. I understand that—I understand how it works and where it will eventually lead to. The French vessel can also carry an international crew on the same transit visas, yet UK law affords it the exemptions that Northern Ireland fishermen are refused. That is a true story; I have not made it up—this is not an example without an evidential base. I suspect, in all honesty, that the Minister accepts that.
Northern Ireland’s fishermen have had to watch EU vessels employ foreign workers in UK territorial waters. They are there without any visa scrutiny whatever, while Northern Ireland fishermen are forced to remain outside those waters. Can the Home Office please put itself in their position, and explain where the morality and the fairness is? For the life of me, I cannot understand it at all. Can the Home Office appreciate the ridiculousness of a situation where it is easier for a British fishing business to employ foreign workers in UK waters if it buys into a French or Irish-registered vessel, rather than one registered in the UK? That anomaly is grossly unfair, and it grieves us all; there is not one Member who represents the fishing sector who does not think that.
It is unfortunate that the Home Secretary denied the request of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance; the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and myself were also talking about the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance the other night. What it has put forward is a feasible and workable option, and one that should be looked at. The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance has asked for the full implementation of section 43 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, and for more time.
As transit visa crews are replaced with skilled visa crews in job lots, some fishing boats will now be expected to go to sea with whole crews joining vessels they have never set foot on before, to work as part of teams that have never met each other before. That poses the question of how practical that is. Professional mariners baulk at the very idea of this. They have issues with the safety, practicality and physical working of it. Fishing is already the UK’s most dangerous profession. I said that at the beginning because it is a fact; I am not making it up. It is not the fault of the migrant fisherman that he has not been granted the time to safely integrate with his vessel and crew mates, yet he is the one carrying the risk.
In response to the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, the Home Secretary raised concerns about the welfare of fishermen. If welfare is one of her considerations, I ask her not to make an already dangerous job more so. I ask her to reconsider on the grounds of safety, with a short delay to the full implementation of section 43 so that crews on transit visas may be replaced with crew on skilled visas as part of the staggered, safe transition.
I said at the beginning that I want to be constructive and give the facts of the case for us in Northern Ireland, but I also want to lay out where I think we can move forward. I am pretty sure that the opinions of everyone else here today are similar. Our Northern Ireland fishing vessel operator can see his colleagues in the North sea targeting the same species, yet, because of a line on a chart, his business has 40% higher labour costs. He sees an EU boat fishing inside the UK’s territorial waters with a transit visa crew, yet his British boat, with the same category of crew, is not allowed there. Even if all his crew had skilled worker visas and he was allowed access to those waters, the French boat would still undercut his labour costs.
This is not about cheap labour, but I want to illustrate that point. Northern Ireland’s fishermen welcome the wage protections that the skilled visas bring. Indeed, that will drive up wages for all our fishermen, local and foreign alike, which is good for the sector because at least it makes it more attractive from a financial wage point of view. For many of Northern Ireland’s boats there is no great disparity in earnings based on whether someone comes come from Kilkeel or Colombo, or Accra or Ardglass, but the same rules should apply to all. The skilled visa system links skills and education in a way that is not always reflected in real life. When we see what is put forward, it is very hard to understand why—I say this with respect to the Minister—he is not reaching out and saying, “Let’s get that in place as soon as we can.”
Most of the international fishermen employed by the UK industry have little by way of formal schooling, but they are expert in their profession. Sometimes people do not have an education, but they have the skills and the ability to work on a boat. That is the frustration that we have here: people who can do the job, but do not have the full grasp of the English language that they need to have. To prevent them from helping our own industry simply because they cannot pass the reading and writing elements of an academic English exam, which reportedly sits somewhere between GCSE and A-level in difficulty, is perhaps contrary to the bigger picture of ensuring our food security.
The Home Secretary has kindly offered a package of help designed to aid the transition to skilled visas. That is welcome, but if I could push that offer of help just a little further, this is the crux of what I would ask for: to recognise that the highly skilled people from around the world who are already part of our fishing communities do not have to have the academic background that enables them to pass B1 level reading and writing. After all, fishing is something we learn in a boat, not in a classroom. Providing that formal academic training to our existing foreign fishermen, who are already working full time, will take months and cost individual fishing businesses tens of thousands in lost revenue because they remain unable to access inshore waters in the interim.
Assumptions are dangerous, and it is simply incorrect to assume that there is, anywhere in the world, a pool of eligible B1-standard fishermen who want to work in the UK. There is not, and that is the nub of the problem. The Home Office is asking the fishing industry to focus its recruitment efforts on a group of people who do not exist. The good news, and there is good news—I always try to bring good news, because that is my nature—is that the Home Office can do something practical to help.
Employers are allowed to pay skilled workers whose jobs are on the shortage occupation list a lower salary than would be the case if the jobs were not in shortage. Perhaps, for shortage occupations, the reading and writing elements of the English test could be reduced by one level from B1. That is my request. It is a practical solution to where we are, and it is a solution that the fishing sector and every MP here will put forward. The fishing sector will work alongside; if a partnership is needed to make this work, the Minister and the Government will have a partnership. The reading and writing could be reduced by one level from B1 for the first year of a person’s stay only; after that, they would be required to pass a B1 exam to remain—which is where we are now —thereby protecting the integrity of the skilled visa system. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan will speak on that shortly and reiterate my point.
That little change could help the fishing industry retain many of the crew it already has by enabling them to successfully make the transition to skilled visas in a matter of weeks—almost right away—thereby minimising the economic cost of losing access to prime inshore grounds and minimising the accidents stemming from the employment of inexperienced and unfamiliar crew. I tell the Minister, with genuine respect, that here we have a solution that can work. Others will repeat that, and they will repeat it because it is right.
Fishing is an irregular occupation. It is unsurprising that it does not fit neatly into any of the current visa options—I understand that. Instead of trying to force square pegs into round holes, perhaps it would be better to begin a dialogue between the fishing industry and the Home Office as to how provision can be made within the framework of the skilled visa system to recognise those irregularities and help to make a better fit. We have put forward a solution, and I am confident that those who speak today will be united, because all of us represent fishermen who want the same thing.
We have great potential. After Brexit, we as a fishing sector were confident that we could move forward. I know that the Minister and the Government are committed to that, but we need some practical help with the technicalities of the system to make it happen. I have made the case, and I look forward to others’ contributions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate Jim Shannon. In his —if I may say so politely—lengthy speech, he has probably covered everything that every one of us will end up asking for. I agree almost 100% with his requests of the Minister and his suggestions for how we can help the fishing sector and turn on their head some of the long-standing and difficult issues for the industry.
Mr Vickers, if you were to come to south Devon—you are of course always welcome—you would be greeted by three extraordinary fishing towns of great variety: Brixham, Salcombe and Dartmouth. Brixham is the most valuable fishing port in England, as we all know— I spend half my time in this place talking about it—but in Dartmouth and Salcombe there is a large contingent of inshore fishermen, whether they are crabbers or day fishermen, who are really impacted by this issue. Indeed, the entire town of Brixham, which I think is now on its third year of record sales—a point that is often overlooked in the mainstream media—is absolutely dependent on visa arrangements. It is my pleasure as their representative to stand up in this place and talk about how we can do more for the fishing sector.
As Mr Carmichael said, fishing is all too often an afterthought. People do not fully consider the fact that fishing is a massive lever with which we can help to level up in our coastal communities and create good, well-paying, highly skilled jobs that allow our coastal communities to flourish. We need only read Professor Chris Whitty’s report on how to level up in coastal communities to see that there is a huge opportunity for us to do more for our fishing industry, and that starts by changing our attitudes. It also starts by changing our habits; just eating more fish—more seafood—would help us to grow the UK’s domestic market. That is something that a great people in my constituency, such as chef Mitch Tonks, are trying to do. He is leading a campaign to support the fishing sector and to talk about the fishing community and the great sources of food we have on our coastline.
I come back to the point about changing attitudes, because if we want to attract people into the fishing community, that is not going to be done by handing out visas to foreign workers; we have to change the approach. I welcome the Government’s measure as a temporary measure, because I hope that, in the in-between period, we can put more into training.
On visa arrangements, it is absolutely welcome that the Government have reduced the cost of the visas and reduced the salary threshold, but I come to the point the hon. Member for Strangford made about the B1 English language requirement: if we are trying to fill a gap right now because there are not enough workers in the fishing community, how on earth do we hope to achieve that when the B1 language course is so complicated and, in many instances, lengthy?
For the sake of argument, let us say that we do manage to train people to the B1 level in order to meet the visa requirements. We have heard from Jim Shannon about the hard, difficult and occasionally dangerous work undertaken on a fishing boat. Is it just possible that people who have achieved the B1 standard of English might then want to take that skill and qualification and do a job that is perhaps more suited to somebody with that level of language skill?
That is quite possible but, again, what is the purpose of this debate? What are we trying to do here? We are trying to shore up support for the fishing community; we are trying to ensure that it continues to thrive. We have come up with a solution, but there is just one small roadblock, and the Minister just needs to move it.
The suggestion regarding the B2 level was well made, but I will just make this point. An organisation called Crew Services operates in the United Kingdom. It has on its books 325 non-UK crew who are working in the UK at the moment. Of them, only six have met the B1 English language requirement. That shows, in a very neat way, the difficulty we have with being able to bring in people in the helpful manner the Minister has brought forward. There are limitations because of what we are asking at the moment; it is going to be very difficult.
A lot has been said about training, and I realise that training is a lengthy process. I say to my hon. Friend David Duguid that if he wishes to go out on a vessel, he is welcome at any time to come down to south Devon to do so. I went out two years ago on a trawler for 36 hours—it was probably the last time I did an honest day’s work—and it was incredibly hard work. One of the things explained to me was the skill that goes into it and the dangers that come with it. I would like to say that I was thrown around that vessel by stormy seas, but unfortunately it was as calm as anything. However, for 36 hours, doing two hours on and two hours off, I saw the industry at work, how hard people work and the benefits of the sector.
In that instance, the young people working on the boat had trained locally, in the south-west. They were using local businesses to try to get into the sector, and that was working well. However, we clearly need to do more on this issue, so I would just make the point that, when the visa changes are implemented—that is very welcome —we should also take in hand training opportunities. In my own area of Totnes and south Devon, South Devon College has set up a training school, which is at the Noss on Dart site. It is now launching its own fisher apprenticeship scheme. It has had good attendance so far. There are a few minor niggles at the moment in how that programme is running, but more and more people are getting into it, and we in this place have to encourage them.
I absolutely declare my interest: we now need a Fishing Minister—a dedicated, stand-alone Minister—to be able to do all of this. I am sure that it is within the good sense of this Minister to be able to advocate that to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I congratulate the Government on the two very positive steps they have taken, on the reduction of costs and the reduction of the salary threshold. Will they please look at the language issue again? That is what the industry in my area is calling for.
I will not steal from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan, but can we also look at the processing sector? A large number of businesses in my constituency are exporting around the world. They rely heavily not only on the fishing community but on there being visas to allow people to work in their sector. However, that will undoubtedly come up further on in the debate.
I am very proud to represent the fishing community. We have some small asks that can make things easier and better, and where we can deregulate and make things more efficient. These steps will not cost the Government much, but they will be applauded by the industry. I hope the Minister has heard my speech and that of the hon. Member for Strangford, and can implement our requests.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Vickers. I, too, congratulate Jim Shannon on securing time for a debate on this important issue.
I represent Orkney and Shetland. Shetland’s local economy is one third fishing-dependent, and that goes through everything. When I say fishing, I am including aquaculture to get to the one third, although a lot of the skills are transferrable in any event. We have the full range: we have small, one-person, inshore boats, right the way through to the largest pelagic trawlers anywhere in Scotland—apart, obviously, from Banff and Buchan, where there are ones that are just as big. I do not think we want to get into a debate about the relative size of the pelagic trawlers; that is not what we are here for.
I have to say that I am just a bit weary with this. We have been going round this course for at least 10 years —possibly more—and we have gone from patch here to fitch there. We have had a reliance on transit visas, which was—bluntly—an abuse of the transit visas system, but it was the only way that fishing boats could get access to the crew they needed. We can absolutely understand why that happened, but it left a lot of people who were coming here as crew vulnerable to a measure of exploitation, and there were stories around the use of transit visas that did no credit to some in the fishing industry. We need a system that actually respects the rights of those who come here and contribute to our industry, and who keep our coastal and island communities growing and thriving, and that respects the rights and entitlements they have as workers in our economy, rather than just pushing them sidewards into the shadows.
The fishing industry has been promised a great deal by some in politics in recent years. Without rehearsing old arguments, it is fair to say that many in the industry feel that the promises made to them have not been honoured or delivered. It is certainly true beyond any measure of doubt that the deal done in 2020 by the former Prime Minister but one, Boris Johnson, did not meet the promises that had been made; indeed, in terms of much of the detail, it was greatly deficient. The trade and co-operation agreement has not delivered the opportunities that were promised, but the industry is nothing if not pragmatic, and it is working towards the renegotiation of that agreement. In the meantime, it would be nice to think that the people who promised the earth but did not deliver at the time would not just keep sticking the boot in while the industry is on the ground.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the outcome of the TCA did not meet all expectations, but does he agree that our power at the negotiating table as an independent coastal state—this includes Ministers and officials in Scotland who take part in these negotiations—has become stronger and that our catching opportunities have increased? However, if we cannot get the people on the boats to catch the fish or to process them in the processors, that situation could potentially be at risk.
There are constitutional issues that the hon. Gentleman and I are part of the debate on and have been for some years. In microcosm, the danger the fishing industry faces is thinking that the solution to everything is dependent on where decision making is exercised. Personally, I think it is more important to discuss the principles and policies underpinning decisions, rather than where those decisions are made. A bad decision in Brussels is just as bad as a bad decision in London or Edinburgh—that is probably as far as it is sensible to take that. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that we could have the greatest opportunities and the most magnificent quota and total allowable catches imaginable, but that is absolutely no use if the crew cannot be found to put the boats to sea.
In my constituency and others, and I suspect in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, that is the situation many skippers face. If the local labour were available, I have absolutely no doubt that skippers would use it in a heartbeat. Every fisherman I speak to tells me exactly the same thing. They say they want a thriving local industry, and they do not want to rely on people coming in on foreign visas, but they also live in a competitive market. The fishermen in my constituency are competing for people who could be recruited into the offshore oil and gas industry, aquaculture or the deep-sea merchant marine.
Those fishermen have to compete not just with those industries but with decades of teachers, careers advisers and commentators telling people that the fishing industry has no future, that it is in decline and that no one would want to go into it. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the local fleet in Shetland, there are fantastic examples of young skippers taking on big commitments. New boats are coming into the industry, in a genuine and visible commitment to the future of the industry. Those skippers just need a hand up. They are not looking for help—for a subsidy or a grant. They just want to be able to go to sea, to make money to provide for their family and to keep an industry going that is critical to the future of our communities.
The history of this issue bears a bit of repeating. We pushed water up the hill for years with the members of the Migration Advisory Committee. We reasoned with them. Eventually we brought them in and beat them up in a Committee Room in the Palace and they accepted that, yes, the job of a deckhand is a skilled occupation. That is how we made the progress that got us to the place where that job could be put on the shortage occupation list.
That brings us to the English language requirement. The concession that has been made is absolutely meaningless if we insist that the crew who are to be employed under it are capable of achieving that level of English language qualification. As I said to Anthony Mangnall, people who have that academic ability will probably not be particularly suited to, or want to work in, a fishing boat. For the medium to longer term, it is difficult to see how there is any meaning to that concession whatever. If we were to get the fishing industry to fund training for people to get to that level, I strongly suspect that they would not be there for the longer term. All we would be doing would be training people for jobs that they would not ultimately take up.
At its root, the problem with the English language qualification is a fundamental lack of understanding in the migration system, and in the Home Office in particular, which seems to equate skill with academic ability. That is a particularly dangerous and—dare I say it?—fairly middle-class view of the world. A lot of people have highly skilled occupations, but have never actually achieved a great deal in terms of academic qualifications, because that has not been the direction in which they have wanted to go. I think what they do is perfectly legitimate. I respect what they do, and what fishermen are capable of doing. I sure as goodness would not go and do it, because it is hard, difficult, dangerous work. In the same way that I would hope that they might respect what I can do with my professional background, I respect what they can do with theirs. It does not always come down to what someone has by way of academic qualifications. The hon. Member for Strangford has already said what needs to be done. That tweak is all we really need; the problem for the Minister would then simply go away.
I want to offer two examples of what the situation means for fishing boat crews in my constituency. The first example is a family with two vivier crab boats. Like everyone I will talk about, the family have done everything that every Minister in every Government would ever tell them to do. They have worked hard, they have saved, they have borrowed to invest and they have grown their business to provide for the family. The father tells me that he does the work because he wants to have a business that he can hand on to his eldest son. He tells me, quite candidly, that he no longer knows whether he will be able to do that. He was fishing with fixed gear, within the 12-mile limit, until the day that his ability to do so was withdrawn. The gear is still sitting there, weeks down the line, because he cannot get the crew to go out and shift it.
When the Minister responds, perhaps he can explain this point. The waters to be included around Orkney include uninhabited islands such as Rona, Sulisker and Sule Skerry. That takes in waters that, for an inshore fisherman, are about 90 miles from the Orkney mainland. I presume that it was a deliberate decision on the part of the Minister to include Rona, Sulisker and Sule Skerry, so will he explain his reasoning? It does not make any sense to me. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about safety. When boats are out fishing, they will often dodge into those areas to get a bit of shelter in bad weather. If fishermen cannot take their boats there because they are fishing outside the 12-mile limit, they will be exposed to even greater danger.
That brings us back to one of the fundamental problems, with which we have been dealing for years: fishermen are forced to fish not where the fishing opportunities exist, but where their visa requirements allow them to. That, again, has to be a case of the tail wagging the dog.
The other example I offer is a Shetland fisherman who bought his boat some years ago. The boat and the quota together cost him around £1.4 million. He still owes the bank just south of £700,000—the figure was about £680,000 when I last spoke to him about it. He has always fished with a foreign crew within the 12-mile limit—well, perhaps not always, but certainly in recent times, because he was able to do so. He did so because, that close into shore, he could be certain that he was only catching haddock. If he has to go outside the 12-mile limit, he will be catching a much more mixed fishery—haddock, cod, ling and saithe. He is not allowed to catch cod, ling and saithe, because he only has quota for haddock. Because of the discard rule, he is also not allowed to get rid of them. That is the vicious circle that leaves fishermen having to tie their boats up at the shore.
The basic truth is that if there is no crew, there is no fishing, and if there is no fishing, there is no ability to service the debt. Fishers will doubtless go out of business, and that income will be lost to the community as those families will no longer be able to make money for themselves. If the boats do not go out to sea, no fish will come into the factories to be processed. In that way, the effect of this decision ripples out through every fishing community in this country.
We are asking for a simple tweak to a fairly small piece of legislation that will not make a massive difference to the number of people coming here. The Minister spoke today about the desirability of offering visas to people who come here on a route that might eventually lead to indefinite leave to remain. He knows as well as I do that if that route is taken, there are other opportunities for the English language requirement to be tested and established.
The people who come here to fish in my constituency are not coming to stay, because their families are still at home in the Philippines or Ghana. They come here to fish for six, eight or 10 months at a time, and then they want to go home. Why would they not? That is where their family are. They come here and make good money working in an industry that looks after them and offers them opportunities. It is good for them and good for us. Why can the Home Office not just get out the way and let them do it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I, too, congratulate Jim Shannon on securing the debate.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow Mr Carmichael. I wanted to intervene so many times during his speech, but I did not want to interrupt his flow. He made lots of very good points, as did my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall. We have not heard from the SNP spokesperson yet, but I am sure that we will broadly agree on most of what we say today. We all represent fishing communities, which, as we have heard, are as wild and varied in their needs and demands as the weather conditions they often face.
I thank the Minister and his officials for meeting me earlier this week to discuss this matter in some detail. It was probably one of the longest meetings with a Minister and his officials that I have ever had, but the fact is that we barely scratched the surface, because there is so much nuance in this industry and the devil is very much in the detail.
This is not a binary issue. It is not a question of whether immigration is bad or good. It is not even a question of whether immigration is legal or illegal. Nobody in this Chamber is advocating doing anything that would be against the immigration rules or classed as illegal immigration. It is right that the UK Government take every reasonable step to stop illegal immigration, stop the small boats coming across the English channel, and stop the disgraceful practice of illegal people smugglers putting vulnerable people at risk and taking advantage of them.
We are talking about a different kind of small boat, although sometimes they are not all that small. These fishing boats operate out of some of the most remote, sparsely populated areas, where unemployment rates are often so low as to be effectively zero. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, in a lot of these areas—particularly in Orkney and Shetland, and in Banff and Buchan, which I represent—there is huge competition from other industries. Traditionally, the competition comes from the oil and gas industry, but given the energy transition, the renewable energy sector is rapidly becoming a competitor, too.
I think we all agree that the system of using transit visas, which technically allow fishermen to enter the country on the basis that they will transit outside a 12 nautical mile limit to work, is not fit for the purposes described today. I have long said that a points-based immigration system, appropriately applied, could replace that system. It is on that basis that I welcome this week’s announcement by the Home Office that share fishermen, trawler skippers and experienced deckhands on large fishing vessels are to be included on the shortage occupation list. Inclusion on the list means that jobs qualify at the 20% lower salary threshold of £20,960 instead of £26,200. However, as has been mentioned, the salaries being paid to those guys are fairly reasonable, and although that measure may help some people start out in the sector, it is not the main obstruction.
Being on the shortage occupation list also means that applicants will pay lower fees of £479 instead of £625 for a three-year visa. That is also welcome. Yet the broader English-language requirements of the skilled worker route will still apply despite the jobs being on the shortage occupation list. It will come as no surprise that, like other hon. Members, I will make that one of my main points.
I welcome the addition of experienced deckhands to the skilled worker route back in 2021. As other hon. Members have said, that followed long discussions between hon. Members such as those of us here representing our constituencies today and the Migration Advisory Committee. I have been doing this for six years; others have been doing it for longer. Through all that, there has been a genuine desire from us as representatives of our coastal communities and from the fishing industry to work constructively and in partnership with Government to come together and find the solutions that we know are there.
Of course, the debate is about the arrangements, but there is also the broader point about where we can reduce bureaucracy. We have skirted around the point about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and health certificates. There is a series of measures by which we are inadvertently blocking people from getting back into fishing or getting into it. If we introduce the requirement for health certificates, that will have an implication for the visa arrangements of those who come over.
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. That impacts the owners of smaller boats more than those of bigger ones, because bigger boats have bigger crews. On a bigger boat, if someone does not receive their health certificate, there are other crew members who can fill the gap. With a one or two-man crew, that becomes more of an issue. My hon. Friend is right to point that out.
Let me return to my point about collaboration between the industry, us elected representatives and the Government. We should take as much advantage as possible of that desire to collaborate and act constructively in partnership and dialogue. As I found in my meeting with the Minister earlier in the week, a face-to-face discussion is so much more productive than just the odd email going back and forth.
The hon. Member forces me to intervene with his second reference to his meeting with the Minister. I am delighted that he got that meeting. On
“The right hon. Gentleman asks to meet the Home Secretary or the Immigration Minister. I can put that request to the Minister this afternoon, and I hope that it will be agreed.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 731, c. 370.]
It would appear that her hopes were not well founded. What did the hon. Member do to get a meeting that I cannot?
I am not sure I want to give away any trade secrets, but, as I am sure the Minister will attest to in his response, a lot of ear-bending was involved—I am sure there has been a lot of that from all of us.
As hon. Members have mentioned, and as the industry and communities themselves recognise, we need to encourage more local people—particularly young people —in our coastal communities to consider a career in fishing. I think it is fair to say—I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes earlier and he agreed, and I am sure the situation is the same in Orkney and Shetland and probably in Strangford—that we are seeing the green shoots of people starting to think about it, but they are doing so in such small numbers. This is a generational issue. It will not happen overnight.
As I said, we have young skippers taking on new boats in Shetland. If their experience is not financially favourable as a consequence of decisions like this, what will that do for the green shoots that the hon. Gentleman and I can see at the moment?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point. Not only is the industry actively taking steps to encourage people into a fishing career, but we have local education facilities such as the North East Scotland College in my constituency—that includes the Scottish Maritime Academy, which people attend from all over Scotland—and efforts by organisations such as the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, to name just a few of the organisations that are actively trying to make this happen. As Members have mentioned, there is so much we can do with automation, particularly in the processing sector, which I will come to later.
In its paper, which was mentioned earlier, the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, in the process of asking for a 24-month period to make all this stuff happen, went as far as to make a commitment on behalf of the industry that within 12 months, up to 100 crew would be operating under a skilled worker visa; within 18 months, for vessels operating some or all of their time within the 12 nautical mile limit, no new crew contracts would be entered under the transit visa route; and within 24 months, all non-UK crew working on vessels operating to an extent within the 12 nautical mile limit would be employed under a skilled worker visa. When I first read that, I thought, “Wow, really?” That is an ambitious target and a huge commitment on behalf of the industry.
As I said, this is a generational issue. Coastal communities around Scotland suffer from depopulation and loss of services—by the way, that is something that the Scottish Government and local councils need to look at, too—and from very low, effectively zero unemployment. The offshore catching sector, as well as those fishing inshore, can apply for the relevant skilled labour through the skilled worker route, but the main stumbling block is the standard required in the written English language test. As others have said, we are not denying that there is a need for a minimum level of English, for health and safety reasons and to avoid exposure to abuse, but the industry has proposed reducing the standard from B1. The hon. Member for Strangford suggested that too, and I have heard requests to reduce the level required to A2.
I went to school with people who went to sea. They left school at the age of 16 and they are now some of the most successful businessmen I know locally. They are very successful, and I have great respect for the work they have done to build up those businesses, but, by virtue of leaving school at 16, they did not achieve the English language test standard we are asking for from our non- native-English-speaking crew members. Many of them have been working on these vessels for many years, but they have not been required to pass the test until now. Again, we are not saying, “Let’s not have English language testing.” The industry is just asking for it to be applied at a sensible and reasonable level.
I heard the response by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, and I think I agree that the English language requirement is reasonable for those coming into the country on a route to settlement. However, I suggest that almost all of the fishermen we are discussing, if not all of them, are not seeking a route to settlement. I ask the Minister whether that might be seen as a means of differentiating these cases from cases where people are actively seeking to settle in this country. As the right hon. Member suggested, it does not seem beyond the wit of man or even Government to apply such a measure, and it would remain consistent with the overall principle that the English language test is a requirement of a visa that could lead to a route to settlement.
If such a move could be made on the English language testing, it would be a game-changer and would help this vital industry and our coastal communities not just to survive but to thrive, as we all know they can. The industry can thrive while maintaining and sustaining our marine environment without the need for hastily imposed and poorly thought out highly protected marine areas, which have been a source of much debate lately. That is perhaps for another debate on another day.
Will the Minister consider the wider seafood production value chains, which have already been mentioned? As I and people in the industry have said, Brexit and becoming an independent coastal state provides a fantastic opportunity to gain more access to catching in our own waters. That is undeniable. As domestic and international markets recover from the covid lockdown, we are seeing demand for our excellent seafood produce grow, both at home and overseas, but the onshore processing side of the sector is experiencing similar issues with access to labour as those we have been discussing today. As well as this week’s announcement, I welcome the previous announcement that fishing jobs will be added to the shortage occupations list.
In a letter from the Home Secretary a few weeks ago, the industry was informed of other forms of support, including a service to guide employers and applicants through the visa and sponsor application process, ensuring that there are sufficient English language testing slots, expediting visa and sponsor applications, further accelerating the decision-making process for no extra charge, and dedicated points of contact in the UK Visas and Immigration service for the sector. That was reasonably well welcomed by the offshore catching part of the fishing sector, but this industry has sourced personnel from outside the European economic area for many years, so people are reasonably experienced in those processes. Such a suite of support, if it could be expanded beyond the catching sector, would be very welcome in the processing sector. This type of assistance has already been provided to other industries, including the food and drink processing sector, so there is precedent.
I welcome on behalf of seasonal fruit farmers the announcement of 10,000 additional visas for the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. I encourage the Minister and his officials to consider adding to that scheme, without necessarily increasing the numbers, those elements of the seafood industry that are seasonal—for example, the herring roe season.
I thought that might prompt a response. I think it is in October or November. Fishing happens all year round, but there is seasonal activity at a time when the industry struggles to find people. Adding that to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme or seasonal food workers scheme could be another option. Such a change would involve only a small number of visas, but it would have a huge impact on the coastal communities.
I will end on the subject of numbers. While we welcome the 55,000 annual visas for seasonal agricultural workers, the numbers that we are talking about today— I am surprised that it has not come up before—are in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands. In addition, we are talking about getting through a transition period, as other hon. Members have said, to a point in the future when, ideally, we would get every single person in the seafood industry working from the local communities in which the industries exist, but certainly we would be talking about very low numbers in the future.
As always, Mr Vickers, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate on visa arrangements for inshore fishing industry crews. It is good that it has brought together Members from Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), as well as, obviously my hon. Friend Jim Shannon, whom I thank for bringing this motion before the Chamber and allowing us to discuss it again.
I say “again” not to be disparaging in any way. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked, how many times have we discussed the issues surrounding the inshore fleet? Yet certainly since I first came here in 2015, these issues have not been resolved and the Government seem utterly incapable of properly getting to grips with them, no matter how many times they are raised.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford will recall us going to the Home Office in 2016, 2017, and I think again in 2019, with the representatives of our respective fishing organisations—and indeed, in one case with representatives from the Philippine embassy—to sit with Ministers and try to explain how the chronic shortage of professional seafarers in the UK is having a devastating effect on our communities, and how we desperately needed those professional fishing crews to be allowed to come and work in the inshore fleets, particularly around Northern Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. I am sure that the hon. Member will also recall that, for the most part, we were treated with great courtesy and listened to. Our ideas, we believed, would be examined. But then, every single time, the things that we asked for were rejected out of hand. I implore the Minister to please be the one to break that cycle.
In my remarks, I asked for more constructive engagement. However, would the hon. Member join me and others in seeking an actual meeting with Ministers—I know, it is difficult enough for us Conservatives to get meetings with Ministers—and officials, and with key stakeholders from the industry who know the industry far better than we do?
Absolutely. Despite having been there so many times in the past, I—and I am sure he, and every other hon. Member here today—would love to be able to sit down again with the Home Office, and with the representatives of these communities and industries, and say, “Please, let this time be different.”
I am never going to give up on this. I think we have made that very clear. However, the reason why I am particularly unhappy about this now is that this feels like it is the final word from the Home Secretary.
The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance engaged with the Home Office in detail and at length. It explained everything in incredible detail that even the slowest of learners must have been able to pick up. At the end of the day, it just got told a straight no. There comes a point where we must ask, “What more do we have to do to get this case across?”
I absolutely share the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration. It seems that, no matter who we speak to, no matter when we speak to them, and no matter the strength of the case that we put forward, there just seems, historically, to have been absolutely no desire on the part of the Home Office even to see the problems that the inshore fishing industry has, to view it as an exceptional case, and to understand the Department’s responsibility to help these communities and the industry to find a bespoke solution to their problems. We were repeatedly told that, as far as the Home Office was concerned, it was an issue for the fishing industry and was for the fishing industry to sort out.
However, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland have said, does anyone believe that we would willingly continue on this merry-go-round if there were easy, quick-fix solutions to be found, and if there were locally available crews waiting and queuing up to work on the boats? There simply are not. That is why we have come away from every one of those meetings with the distinct impression that the Home Office, rather than wanting to be part of finding a workable solution, sees its role as being there to police the legislation that is already in place.
The hon. Member for Strangford was correct when he said that there is a complete unwillingness on the part of the Home Office to accept that the 12-mile limit on the west coast of Scotland and in Northern Ireland is vastly different from the 12-mile limit on the east coast, and that a blanket one-size-fits-all policy totally ignores the fact that, for smaller fishing boats working out of Oban, Tarbert, Carradale or Campbeltown, the 12-mile limit stretches far out into the dangerous deep waters of the north Atlantic.
We also know that the mainstay of the west coast fleet is the shellfish industry. It has arguably the best langoustine and scallops in the world, which are found in the safer, shallower inshore waters in the Scottish Hebrides. The example given by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about his fishing communities having to go beyond the uninhabited islands should be remarkable, but maybe in these circumstances it is not. While on the east coast a large fishing fleet can head out to sea outside UK territorial waters relatively quickly, on the west coast we simply cannot. The problem of geography is essentially creating a huge problem for one of the most important sectors of our rural west coast economy. Historically, the Government’s response has been that it is not their problem to find the solution. While I welcome certain things that have been introduced, history and experience tell me that we will not get much further; I hope that the Minister is the one to prove me wrong.
It has already been said that what is being proposed in the skilled worker visa does not create a level playing field at all, as the cost of securing the skilled worker visa is huge. Skippers and owners will have to pay out thousands of pounds getting visas and the ability to bring in workers. While the lowering of the fees and the reduction of the salary threshold are all to be welcomed, as we have heard so often this afternoon, the draconian requirement for applicants to have an English language examination is causing huge problems.
For those recruiting deckhands to work on inshore fishing boats, the demand that every worker achieves level 4, B1 in English showing that they can read, write, speak and understand English is almost ridiculously prohibitive. This is not the first time that that has been raised in the House. Late last year, Liz Saville Roberts spoke of a skipper in her constituency who brought in a vastly experienced Ghanaian fisherman to work as a deckhand, but he could not get past the B1. He could not get past that English language test, and it made a huge difference to not just him, but the boat owner and everyone else on the crew, because they simply could not go to sea. The Minister will be well aware of the article in Fishing News in which the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance told the paper that
“getting fishermen through the B1 English language requirement is now a big issue.”
I know that he will be aware of that, because the hon. Member for Totnes just told him that Crew Services Limited said that of the 325 non-UK crew on its books, only six have that certificate.
Earlier this week, I was in contact with a number of boat owners and skippers in Argyll and Bute. I talked to Malcolm MacKinnon, who owns five vessels in Tarbert. We discussed what the situation on the ground there was, and he told me that because of the chronic shortage of deckhands, his 22-metre fishing boat, The Elegance, has been tied up since
Malcolm pointed out that a tied-up boat does not affect just the skipper, his crew and their families through a loss of income; it has a huge knock-on effect on the local community, where businesses rely heavily on each other in a way that perhaps does not exist in more urban areas. He told me that over a 10-week period, the boat would normally have spent money on 80,000 litres of fuel, 50 tonnes of ice and £3,000 of local groceries and supplies, as well as a supply of gloves, overalls and various other items from the chandlery in the local area. He also told me he was in the process of buying a new vessel, but decided to pull out of the purchase because he knew he could not get the crew.
In Mr McKinnon’s opinion, the whole of the west coast of Scotland would probably get by on only 300 foreign crew members. That is the level we are talking about; that is the reality of the situation on the ground in the west coast of Scotland. Mr McKinnon’s case cannot and should not ever be seen as being unique, because it is multiplied many times over across the west coast. The impact on already fragile rural communities and their economies is enormous.
All we are asking for is a level playing field—one that does not penalise small fishing communities simply on the basis of their geographic position in these islands. I ask the Minister, after all of the years, after all the meetings and after all the pleas that have been made from across this House, will he be the one to finally break the cycle, so we can get that level playing field for our small, local, rural communities?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Vickers. I pay tribute to Jim Shannon for securing the debate, and for his determined and relentless advocacy on an issue that is of the utmost importance to his fishing community and to fishing communities across the whole of the United Kingdom. He has explained that some 600 jobs could be at risk across these areas as a result of problems caused by the end of the transitional arrangements. He has also clearly set out that persistent efforts to reach some accommodation with Ministers to soften the blow of those changes appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
I also thank Mr Carmichael, and the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for making excellent contributions.
I have a couple of brief points on the principles that underpin the Opposition’s approach to the points-based system. First, we support it; it was, in fact, created by a Labour Government in 2008. We believe, however, that it is being mismanaged, and there are real opportunities for improvement. Secondly, migrant workers play a vital role in our economy, but it is clear that the reason employers are having to go abroad is that for 13 years we have seen Governments failing to train Britain’s home-grown talent to fill the 1 million vacancies we have. We have 7 million people on NHS waiting lists in England alone. Thirdly, the Labour party wants the net migration number to come down. We want to see our public and private sectors recruit and train more home-grown talent to fill vacancies before looking overseas. That is why we have set out practical plans to deliver a skills agenda that gets people back into the labour market and workforce and brings down NHS waiting times. Those are the three principles that underpin our approach to the issue.
I will now turn to the specific focus of this debate. I was particularly struck by an industry overview published by the Sea Fish Industry Authority last year, which noted:
“Across the supply chain, businesses raised issues with the Skilled Worker Visa route as a solution to labour shortages. This option was seen as prohibitively expensive, especially for small businesses. Businesses also reported that the application system was slow and difficult to use. The high English language requirement for the visa was seen as prohibitive by many businesses. As a result, some industry groups began exploring avenues to recruiting workers from countries where English is an official language, such as Belize.”.
The Government’s position, as set out in section 43 of Nationality and Borders Act 2022, is that foreign nationals require sponsored visas under the points-based system. However, in recognition of the fact that many crews have been incorrectly relying on transit visas rather than work visas, the Government agreed to delay implementation of section 43. Then, on
We are now in a situation where a number of really important questions need to be answered. I would like to hear from the Minister on the following points. The Government have said that the rules in effect from last month are intended to encourage employers in the fishing industry to recruit locally if possible. Can the Minister tell us what recent assessment he has made of the extent to which the current workforce requirements of the fishing industry have been met by recruiting domestic workers? Secondly, what specific steps are the Government taking to provide the necessary training opportunities for UK nationals to take on skilled jobs on fishing vessels?
Thirdly, during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, Tom Pursglove, who was Immigration Minister at the time, said that the codification of Government policy on visa requirements for fishing vessels in section 43 was likely to have a “negligible” impact. Based on the information now available to the Government, was that a reasonable assumption?
Fourthly, what measures have the Government put in place to monitor the effects of the transition to the new system? Specifically, will Ministers commit to ensuring that there is robust, ongoing analysis of the impact on workforce supply and the UK’s food security more broadly?
Fifthly, since the relevant changes came into force last month, how many applications has the Home Office received from employers in the fishing sector for sponsor licences and skilled workers visas? How many of those applications have already been granted and how many are still outstanding?
Sixthly, what does the initial evidence tell us about the degree to which meeting the English language requirements continues to pose particular challenges to would-be visa sponsors?
Seventhly, will the Minister update us on what progress the Government and/or their contractors working overseas have made towards ensuring adequate provision of the requisite English language training for prospective workers in countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and others that Members have highlighted?
A major part of the Government’s justification for refusing to extend the transition period is the argument that the English language requirements under the skilled worker route are an important means of protecting migrant workers against abuses in the workplace. Will the Minister therefore explain why his party’s manifesto commitment to establish a single enforcement body for labour market abuses remains unfulfilled? Will he also give an unambiguous commitment to fulfilling that manifesto pledge before the next general election?
The fishing industry is a vital part of our economy, our food security and our broader national story. The current system simply is not working, and the Government should get on and fix it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I am grateful to Jim Shannon for securing the debate and for the constructive meeting that he and I had earlier in the year with representatives from the fishing sector. I am grateful to him and to all other hon. Members who have participated today. I was grateful for a recent meeting with my hon. Friend David Duguid, which was very productive. He made a number of important points, and in a moment I will respond to him as to how the Government intend to take them forward. I will pass on to the Prime Minister an application from my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall to be fishing Minister, although he might have competition from my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan.
The Government fully recognise the importance of the fishing industry to the UK’s economy. It has played an integral part in the UK’s heritage and will play an important part in its future. It is a mainstay of coastal communities. It provides employment, shapes infrastructure, and provides nutritious and delicious food for our domestic and international markets.
In recognition of the important contribution that fishing makes, the Home Secretary and I are of the view that, following the implementation of section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act, which clarifies the long-standing position that migrant workers within 12 nautical miles of the UK require a work visa, it is vital that the Government do what they can to find further ways to support the fishing sector in using the immigration system.
In the Home Secretary’s letter to the sector last month, which has already been referred to, she set out that the Department stands ready to deliver a comprehensive package of support to the sector. The package includes guiding fishing firms through the visa and sponsor application process, as well as the broader immigration system; ensuring that there is sufficient capacity for English language testing slots; expediting visa and sponsor applications; further quickening the decision-making process for no extra charge; and having dedicated points of contact in UK Visas and Immigration for the sector. That is a broad package. It is based on one that we have produced for other sectors in the recent past that has been appreciated by those sectors and has generated dividends.
Earlier today in the House, the Minister said that the package had been welcomed by the fishing industry. Who was he talking to who welcomed it?
My Department has told me that stake- holders have welcomed it, and I think it is a good package. We are already starting to engage with firms and representatives who are responding to it. The sector is well catered for under the points-based system, but I will come in a moment to the changes that we propose to make. Those in a range of eligible fishing and processing roles—including deckhands, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to earlier—have had access to the skilled worker visa since April 2021.
We believe that with the right level of support, the sector should be able to further navigate the existing immigration system. Building on that, and further to representations from a number of right hon. and hon. Members present, including my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan, we have decided to add further fishing occupations—share fishermen, trawler skippers and deckhands on large fishing vessels—to the shortage occupation list, all of which the Migration Advisory Committee recommended in 2020 as part of its SOL review. That will ensure that the fishing sector can continue to access the talent that it needs at reduced cost, and the Government will implement that during the summer on an interim basis until the wider MAC review into the SOL has been completed.
The hon. Member’s knowledge of the fishing sector is superior to mine. I do not know the exact definition, but I will happily get my officials to write to him and we will place on record in the Library of the House what the Home Office considers the official definition to be.
We strongly encourage the sector to engage with us to ensure that firms can attract the workers that are needed. The sooner that happens, the less disruption the sector will face. My officials, along with officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stand ready to help. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said—echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan and others—the long-term, sustainable answer is not to rely solely on international labour but to train more domestic workers to embrace technology and automation to the extent that that is applicable. We all appreciate the challenges that the sector faces and the difficulty in recruiting domestically at present. Nobody is blind to that, and the Home Secretary and I are certainly not.
On broader non-immigration aspects—this point was raised by the shadow Minister, Stephen Kinnock, and others—DEFRA continues to run the access to labour working group that was launched in June 2022 with the purpose of improving relationships with the industry, ensuring that it has a voice at the table, and Home Office officials are represented on that working group. That includes representatives from the catching, processing, aquaculture and shellfish sectors across the United Kingdom. I have encouraged my officials to play an active part in that so that we can have the dialogue that everyone present seeks to achieve.
In terms of helping the sector to recruit and train the next generation of fishermen and women, the Government have provided funding through the £100 million UK seafood fund to remove some of the barriers that new entrants to the sector face, and DEFRA has awarded £1.1 million through the fund for skills and training to help industry with recruitment and retention issues. Seven projects across the UK have received funding to improve the quality of training, promote career progression and help to attract new people into the sector.
What help is that to the constituent I referenced who still owes £680,000 to the bank, and who cannot go to sea because he cannot get the crew? He will not be around by the time these people are available for his ship.
I appreciate the urgency of the issue, but it is important that the sector plays its part in considering the long-term future of training and recruiting new individuals. The funds provided by DEFRA will play a part in helping the sector to adapt to the future.
In addition to the grant schemes in England, the fisheries and seafood scheme offers extensive support aimed at attracting new entrants. Eligible projects include supporting new entrants into the industry, the creation of job opportunities and the provision of apprenticeship schemes for new entrants, perhaps including the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes.
Is it the Minister’s position today that the same people—the same stakeholders in the industry —who have been telling him that they welcome this somehow or other did not realise they had a responsibility to upskill their own workforce?
No, it is not. As with any sector of the economy, there is a role for Government in producing an immigration system that enables access to foreign labour on a pragmatic basis where there are skills shortages. There is also a role for the industry to adapt, evolve and train British workers to take those jobs, and both have to work together in harmony. I have just set out the funding streams available through DEFRA to help support the sector to do that, but I do not underestimate how challenging that will be for the sector.
I do not think that any of us here do not welcome the training money and the opportunities it will give the sector back home to try to gain employment. I am mindful that that is a challenging target to meet. What we have asked for today—if the Minister is coming to this point, I apologise—is short-term help with the English language requirement. David Duguid put forward the idea that the English qualification should be A2, and I suggested it should be B2. We made it clear that that would be for one year, and then there would be a target to meet the B1 qualification. I felt that that was a positive and constructive way forward, and it helps us as representatives of the fishing sector. I hope the Minister will forgive me if I am labouring the point, but we need such a break- through.
I was coming to that point. I was not going to conclude my remarks without addressing it properly.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Strangford for jumping in on the back of his question. The funds are welcome, but I urge the Minister to do all he can to encourage DEFRA to see that access to them is made as easy as possible. I am concerned that in my patch, we repeatedly fail to apply for the funds. There are certain levels of complexity that I do not think are necessary when we are trying to help the industry. It is becoming quite cumbersome, so perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will relay that to his counterpart.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that ask, and I will certainly relay the feedback to the Secretary of State for DEFRA.
I will turn to the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and then I will come to the ask of the hon. Member for Strangford. As the Home Secretary set out in her letter to the industry, although it is a long-standing Government policy that overseas workers in UK waters needed visas, we accepted that there was a need to legislate for clarity. The fishing sector has been using transit visas erroneously, in our view, for a number of years without consequence, and it was vital to correct that given the labour abuse that we saw in some parts of the sector.
Foreign nationals coming to work in the UK, on land or on our waters, should comply with the immigration system. That includes the firms that are looking to hire those workers. I do not believe that is controversial, and the fishing industry is no exception. None the less, as a result of the clarification there is a transition that needs to be managed, as right hon. and hon. Members have said today.
I do not think anybody in this Chamber today would disagree on the need to avoid labour abuse. But would the Department—I understand that if there are ongoing investigations, this is not appropriate—provide details of any convictions of labour abuse that have taken place? Perhaps not today, but will he inform Members of where abuses have taken place? I am not aware of any in my constituency, but if I was, I and other hon. Members would be helping the Government to throw the book at those people. I suspect it is not as prevalent as some in the media might want to make out.
I do not want to overstate it, but I know from my conversations with officials in the Department that they believe there is evidence of abuse. If I am able to put any of that in the public domain to give a guide on the scale of it, I would be pleased to.
Section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act simply clarifies what has been the Government’s policy position for some time, which is that foreign workers working in our waters need permission to do so. It does not introduce a new policy.
Why did the Minister include Sule Skerry within the definition of waters to which the Act applies?
I was interested to hear the point that the right hon. Gentleman made in his speech. As I understand it, the Home Office has simply taken the standard definition of 12 nautical miles, and all islands that fall within UK waters are in scope of the UK’s immigration system. It is not within the power of the Home Office to change where UK waters begin and end. If he contests that or would like to further discuss the matter, I would be happy to take it up with him.
It is in our interests to try to polish this particular item, because it could make a real difference. Sule Skerry is about 90 or 100 miles out from Orkney mainland. Those waters are very different from the ones we are talking about. Boats often go there, and they rely on it for shelter. Including places such as Sule Skerry will put lives at risk. Is the Minister happy with that?
I would be happy to make further inquiries and come back to the right hon. Gentleman. As I understand it, 12 nautical miles merely represents the standard definition of UK waters. If that is the case, it seems difficult to hive off particular parts of UK waters for the purposes of our immigration system. I am happy to be corrected if that is not an accurate description.
I appreciate that the Minister is being very generous. It is not about carving out certain parts of UK territorial waters. This affects the entire west coast—certainly of Scotland—and it takes in all of Northern Ireland and large chunks of England. It is not a small tweak that is required, but a complete change in our understanding of what the 12 nautical miles means for both the west coast and the east coast. This is not a tinkering point.
I understand that, and I apologise if I gave the impression that this affects a small part of UK waters. Either way, the Home Office has taken a standard definition of UK waters and applied it for the purposes of our immigration system. Ostensibly, that sounds like a reasonable way to proceed, but I am happy to make further inquiries and revert to the hon. Gentleman if there is another way to do so within the confines of the law.
I suspect that the point made by Mr Carmichael equally refers to somewhere such as Rockall. I do not think it is in anybody’s constituency, but it is so far away from the UK mainland that we think it should not apply. However, under the definition of the 12 nautical miles, the 12 nautical miles around Rockall—which is not inhabited—are impacted as well.
I am grateful for that. The point is registered. I will make inquiries and revert to all hon. Members present who are interested.
I turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford about English language requirements. In our 2019 manifesto, we committed to prioritising people who have a good grasp of English in our visa system. The English language requirement is fundamental to successful integration into British society, helping visa holders to participate in community life and work. As the hon. Member noted, the level we set is B1, or lower intermediate English, from the common European framework of reference for languages. That level of English is applied for skilled worker visas without exception, unless the applicant can prove that they are from a majority English-speaking country, of which there are some that provide fishermen and women to UK businesses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said that workers from Belize, which is an English-speaking country, come to the UK in some numbers. That level is not fluency, but it is the ability to understand and deal with the main points likely to arise in conversation on matters relating to work, school, leisure and so on. Without that level, applicants may struggle to support themselves and their families in the UK.
A good grasp of English can also be important in the workplace, particularly in busy or potentially dangerous environments, and to fulfil health and safety requirements. Workers who do not have a good command of English are more likely to be vulnerable to exploitation and less able to understand their rights. That is vital in a sector that, as we have just noted, has had some issues with labour market abuses.
On labour market abuses, will the Minister set out the timeline for his Government’s implementation of their manifesto pledge to create a single integrated labour market enforcement authority?
We do not have a timetable at present, but we are working with the relevant stakeholders, such as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which deals with abuses onshore, rather than offshore, to find the right approach to protect workers in all settings. I am happy to update the hon. Gentleman further on the likely timescales for that.
I would be happy to consider the proposal of the hon. Member for Strangford, which he set out well, although I do not want to give false hope that we are certain to take it forward. For the reasons I set out, we have principled arguments for maintaining a good degree of English. All of us, including the hon. Gentleman, care about preventing exploitation. We want the people who come to this country to speak a good degree of English, and we want to ensure that we have a well-integrated and cohesive country. As a matter of principle, we have taken the view that all those coming on skilled worker visas should have that level of English.
I appreciate that, in this instance, a high number of those coming for such purposes will ultimately return to their own countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan said. None the less, it is a route to settlement, and we have to be very careful about enabling people to live in the UK for sustained periods or settle here permanently if they cannot participate fully in life in this country.
If I heard the Minister right, I believe the Department was prepared to consider A2. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and I—indeed, all hon. Members who know fishing organisations—know that they are satisfied that A2, which is a lesser requirement, meets their safety requirements. It gives those people the level of understanding that the Government wish them to have. If that is the case, I suggest that the A2 qualification would be sufficient to move us forward in a constructive and positive way.
You are a very knowledgeable lady when it comes to fishing issues, Mrs Murray. You are not participating in this debate, of course, but I just want to make that point. In the past five years, I cannot recollect any abuses of fishermen. I am aware of that happening in Northern Ireland about 20 years ago, but the fishing organisations have moved forward because they want to ensure the safety and security of their fishermen and safeguard their rights. That is a positive policy, and I welcome that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I assure him that I will take that request away and give it careful consideration. If there is any further information that he or the representative bodies would like to submit to us, I would be happy to consider that. But I think he understands the principles on which the decision is taken and that it is not an easy decision to give special treatment to one particular sector when others in the country would like similar treatment. Our overall policy is the right one. We want people to have a good degree of English if they are coming here for sustained periods or on a route to settlement.
I would like to update hon. Members following the conversation I had with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan. He asked for two particular Home Office considerations. First, he asked whether the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which, as he noted, we have extended into 2024 and increased to up to 55,000 workers, could be extended to include certain fishing occupations that are undertaken onshore and that could be construed to be seasonal in nature. I undertook that we would consider that. My hon. Friend undertook that he and the sector would build an evidence base to support and inform the decision by the Home Office.
Secondly, my hon. Friend asked whether the package of support set out by the Home Secretary to enable easier access to the skilled worker visa system could be extended to certain onshore activities. Again, I undertook to look into that. I will revert to him and other right hon. and hon. Members once we have taken those issues forward. If other Members or representatives from the sector who might be listening to the debate want to participate in informing those decisions, I encourage them to do so.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—although we still have an hour and a quarter. He has been generous with his time so far. The hon. Member for Strangford can still take time at the end of the debate, as I recall.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Miss Dines, told me on
All joking apart, this really matters. It is having a massive impact on some of the most economically fragile communities in this country.
I would be pleased to meet the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents. I have met the hon. Member for Strangford and representatives from the Northern Irish fishing sector, and I met my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan. That is a decent number—I have met two out of the four Members here. I would be pleased to do the same for the right hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for securing the debate, and all those who have spoken. I hope I have made clear that the Government are committed to supporting the fishing sector as much as we can. On top of the already good coverage that our immigration system has of the fishing sector, I hope that the additional support that the Home Secretary and I have brought forward in the last few weeks, both in the package to assist with navigating the skilled worker visa system and now the additional occupations added to the shortage occupation list, will further improve the situation.
I hope Members will assist the Government in encouraging full engagement with our offer of support, which in turn should enable the industry to make full use of the system. The sooner that engagement happens, the less disruption there will be. I look forward to working with the sector in the future.
First of all, I thank all the Members here today for their significant contributions to the debate, starting with Anthony Mangnall. He and I seem to be in many debates together. We are always in fishing debates, as indeed, I think, are all of us who are here now.
The hon. Member for Totnes referred to the training scheme for locals. That is a very important issue and the Minister responded to it well. It involves the fishermen’s apprenticeship scheme, which I know the hon. Gentleman has spoken about before, in Westminster Hall and elsewhere. It also relates to the processing sector, which can help to grow the economy of the United Kingdom, and that is good news.
Mr Carmichael brings a wealth of knowledge to these debates and I genuinely always look forward to hearing his contributions. He told us that a third of the economic sector in his constituency is dependent on fishing, which shows how important it is locally. He referred to transit visas and said that fishing is critical for the future of our economy.
There was a request about the English language test. That might be a small part of the changes that we need, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to, but those changes will be critical for moving us forward. Minister, we want to move forward with you; that is what we are saying. But we need help to get that issue over the line.
David Duguid and I have also become good friends during his time here. Fishing brings us together—indeed, many other things do. The Union brings us together; we are interested in that. Today, he again outlined the importance of fishing to his constituency. He also said—I loved this—that “green shoots” need to encouraged. The “green shoots” are there. We just need to take a wee step forward in the right direction to get things over the line.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance and to what it is saying. I think that from today onwards we will probably take some of these organisations together on the basis of this debate and use their work to add to our comments, because that would be helpful. The POs that we all have in our constituencies can do that as well.
I always appreciate the contributions of Brendan O’Hara. He was very clear in supporting the key issues of what we are about: the English language test; reducing the requirement from B1 to B2; and safety. All those things would all be retained, which is really important. He also made another important point: while we are focusing on the fishing vessels out in the sea, the industry back in the harbours, the processing sector, the shops, the diesel sellers and—very importantly—the families, are all involved, too.
The shadow Minister, Stephen Kinnock, made a significant contribution. He asked all the right questions without going through all the fishing noise that we all have, and I thank him for it. Indeed, we all thank him for that, because I think he summed things up very succinctly for us all.
I very much appreciate the Minister’s response to the debate. I also appreciate the fishing package, and the aim in the future to have the treaty in place. All of us across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would get the advantage of that. He knows the key issue and I welcome his commitment to look at it again. To help him and his Department to understand all the issues better, the key issue is that the B2 qualification is in safety and in understanding. The industry and the sector are really committed to working together with him.
This is a joint enterprise for the betterment of all the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I think we can go forward together and I thank everyone for their constructive and positive contributions today. Finally, Mrs Murray, it is always nice to see you in the Chair. For once, you were able to oversee a debate rather than participating in it. Thank you so much for chairing today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered visa arrangements for inshore industry fishing crew.