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Foreign Fishermen (Visas)

Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

This issue is important to my constituency and many other constituencies across the United Kingdom. Along with being in the armed forces, commercial sea fishing represents the most dangerous occupation in the United Kingdom—a fact that would be confirmed by our fishermen and those who represent them. The programme “Deadliest Catch” and the film “The Perfect Storm” illustrate very clearly the issues that fishermen face each and every day.

A combination of increasing regulatory burdens and decreasing financial returns, compounded by the antisocial nature of the job, has led to local UK share fishermen drifting away from the occupation. Although there is a method in place to address the problems, we need some help moving things along, which is why I sought this debate. Although the drifting away is not a universal trend within the industry, the larger part of the fleet, comprising those trawlers targeting certain species such as cod, haddock, whiting and nephrops, has been particularly vulnerable to the trend for the past decade and more.

The take-home wage is a key concern of the fishermen. It does not always reflect the nature of the work, which has been brought into our homes by the TV series “Trawlermen”. Figures from the Sea Fish Industry Authority’s regular economic surveys of the fleet show that the average gross annual wage for a Northern Ireland-based share fisherman works out at approximately £15,000, less their tax and stamp. Other hon. Members will speak on behalf of their areas, but I suspect that the wage will be similar. Given the salaries available in other sectors, it is no wonder that many share fishermen have chosen to leave the industry.

There is a perception that share fishermen are mainly unskilled or unqualified workers, but that is not the case. Regrettably, fishermen’s skills and the qualifications that they are required by law to possess go largely unrecognised outside the fishing sector. The sea fishing industry has changed dramatically over the past few years to become a multi-million-pound industry. Skippers and their crews work on modern, sophisticated vessels and are expected to be highly skilled technicians who are able to act as efficient harvesters of the seas and to operate a range of electronic instruments for safe navigation and for finding fish. Gone are the days of throwing a net over the side of a boat to catch fish; it is much more sophisticated now.

Share fishermen in the UK are self-employed, so they have the option of looking for alternative employment in either the marine or onshore sectors. Trawler owners, on the other hand, still have a business to manage and bank loans to repay. They have a choice. Of course they will pursue every opportunity available to them to enhance the value of their catch or reduce their overheads so that the profit and consequently the crew share can be maximised. I can cite several examples from my constituency of Strangford where trawler owners are working collectively to bulk-purchase fuel and promote the local consumption of their catch. They are doing everything practically and physically possible to improve their profit margins. Despite taking such actions, crewing problems persist. Consequently, trawler owners are forced to look for alternative crewing arrangements.

The European Union and its common fisheries policy possess few positive aspects for our fishing fleet. One such aspect has been to increase the labour pool. With the expansion of the EU eastwards, many citizens of the independent Baltic states have found their way to the periphery of the Union and have been able to secure positions as crew members on board UK-based trawlers. Many of the new recruits to the UK’s fishing industry had previous fishing industry and merchant navy experience. However, they lacked the recognised qualifications required by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. That obstacle, compounded by language difficulties, was largely overcome. None the less, significant investment was required on the part of the trawler owners, as interpreters were drafted in to assist tutors in delivering the courses that resulted in the mandatory qualifications.

Let me set out where we are, and then I will outline how we can move forward.

The hon. Gentleman has laid out very well the situation of the share fishermen. People come in from other countries to do the work of a share fisherman, and there are many jobs onshore that are dependent on their work. Barratlantic in my constituency has told me that if it loses its three overseas fishermen, it will have to lay off members of staff at its fish factory, because fewer fish will be landed. That underlines how important it is that we manage to keep those skilled men working on our boats in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The wonderful thing about being an MP—apart from the privilege of being here—is that the issues that are prevalent in the area that I represent are the same as those in Scotland, England and Wales. They are not specific to my constituency alone, which is why we need the help of Westminster, the Government and the Minister.

Despite the difficulties, the first wave of immigrant fishermen addressed many of the crewing problems. However, the economic factors, which are well known to many of us across the UK, meant that many of the immigrants began to return home. UK trawler owners almost found themselves in chapter two of the crewing crisis, and that is where we are today. Consequently, trawler owners and their agents began to look further afield. In 2006, the first Filipino fishermen began to appear in fishing communities around the UK, and particularly in Scotland. The trend started in Scotland and then made its way across the rest of the UK, to England and Northern Ireland.

Filipino fishermen are different from their UK colleagues, in that they tend to be employed. In addition, as the Philippines, like the UK, is surrounded by sea, all the new recruits who came over to the UK tended to have seagoing experience, and indeed fishing experience, with qualifications that on the most part were recognised by the UK, including by the MCA. Furthermore, as I have heard for myself, their knowledge of the English language is impressive. I have spoken to some of these Filipino fishermen in the port of Portavogie, and I must say that they are very clear in what they are telling me.

The first Filipino fishermen arrived in Northern Ireland in 2007 and their numbers in the three ports along the County Down coast increased quickly. They filled, and continue to fill, an important void in trawler crews at a critical time for the industry. Access to the UK was achieved through transit visas, an important condition of which is the requirement that the vessel to which they are attached spend the majority of its fishing time outside UK territorial waters. In fact, these fishermen were not permitted to live on shore. That was probably quite a strict condition, but they none the less tried to keep to it.

As I have mentioned, the primary difference between the Filipino fishermen and other immigrant fishermen from outside the European economic area on the one hand, and UK share fishermen on the other, is that the former group are employed. As such, they have a contract of employment with the trawler owners, and those contracts carry with them obligations for the owners—obligations to do with pay, insurance cover and travel costs. The take-home pay of a British share fisherman varies from trawler to trawler and from week to week, depending on the weather and the danger that they face. Their pay is based on a share of the trawlerman’s profits. If a trawler makes no profit, then the crewmen get no salary, so it is clear that the Filipino fisherman has an advantage that the share fisherman does not. Employed crew members’ contracts stipulate a minimum weekly wage, and bonuses are then paid, which differ from trawler to trawler. Overall, however, when all the costs are accumulated, the share of the profit and the salary paid to any crew member are very similar.

However, a big difference is the fact that, from the outset, the transit visa required non-EEA fishermen to live on board the trawlers. Although their living conditions are no different from those of UK fishermen, the non-EEA fishermen do not get a break from those conditions during their contracts, which can last for several months.

In many of the ports where the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen has a presence, immigrant fishermen have availed themselves of the mission’s facilities. Indeed, in some ports, such as Troon and Kilkeel, the mission opened mini-centres to provide rest and relaxation facilities for visiting UK fishermen and immigrant fishermen alike. As always, the mission needs to be commended for the Christian service that it provides, and the Christian witness that it bears to fishermen all over the UK. I pay tribute to it.

Unfortunately, there have been occasions when owners have been accused of abusing crew members. I will put this on record: some crew members have made certain claims. However, I met Filipino fishermen no more than a month ago in Portavogie and spoke to them, basically through an interpreter. I know that some people in this Chamber have difficulty following my accent, so I suspect that the Filipinos in Portavogie probably had even more difficulty. Fortunately, however, we had a translator, and I was able to convey to them that I would be bringing this matter to the House within a short time.

As somebody else who causes some difficulties for Hansard—I am quite proud of that fact—I would like to back up what the hon. Gentleman is saying and talk about another aspect of the issue. In my experience, fishermen who have lost a man because he has returned to the Philippines have not sought to replace him with another Filipino. They have been quite specific in wanting to get the man who they have got to know to come back and work with them. That shows the building of personal relationships, and indeed friendships of a certain kind, between men when they are out fishing together. I find that quite heartening, and it is quite the opposite of some of the scare stories. That has been my experience in this field.

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his contribution. There is a very strong bond of friendship, loyalty, togetherness and comradeship that comes from being together on a small boat. I do not know if other Members have ever had the chance to get out on a fishing boat. If they have not, they should take the opportunity to go out in one. They would see the small section of the boat that the fishermen sleep in. If they were not claustrophobic before, they certainly would be afterwards, because it is almost incredibly small.

Whenever I have met the Filipino fishermen in Portavogie, an area that I represent back home, I have seen their commitment. When they were wanted at 4 am down in the harbour, they were there. In fact, they were there perhaps half an hour before they were going out on the boats. They were always on time and they worked hard all day. That is how they did things. As the hon. Gentleman has said very clearly, the Filipino fishermen have a strong commitment to work.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. To back up what he has just said, one fishing boat skipper told me that if he goes to sleep at night, he wants to be sure that the person at the wheel is somebody in whom he has complete trust. The bond and the trust that are built up over a number of years are very important, and that is why there is a desire to retain these employees.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which highlights the fact that, right across the UK, the same issues apply to us all. It also highlights our knowledge as elected representatives of immigrant fishermen, and Filipino fishermen in particular, and the need to have them retained in the fishing industry in the areas that we represent.

The hon. Gentleman has been very kind in giving way and sharing his time. One of the difficulties that the people and the companies that want these men to return have raised with me is the cost involved. There are legal fees of £1,250 plus VAT; there are the Home Office fees of £1,000; and there is a further fee of £170 for every sponsor’s certificate issued. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that, especially at this time, those are costs that businesses should not really be facing on an almost continual or cyclical basis? Perhaps the Migration Advisory Council should seek to reclassify these fishermen and put them into the specialisms that they are quite clearly and patently qualified for.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the costs involved. Those costs seem to increase every year, and continuously throughout the year. I am also concerned about them.

Filipino fishermen have had Filipino consular staff down to see them and speak to them about the matters that affect them. I have discussed the issue of the Filipino fishermen with the UK Border Agency on two occasions, and I had occasion to table a question for the Minister for Immigration on the subject just last year. These are important matters for us as representatives of the fishing industry, but I must say that they are even more important for the Filipino fishermen and the trawler skippers for whom they work.

During 2008 and 2009, there were extensive consultations between the UK Border Agency, industrial representatives and others. The UK Border Agency became aware of just how valuable both the non-UK fishermen and the non-EEA fishermen were to the continued safe operation of the fishing industry. That point about safety backs up the points that the hon. Members for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), and for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), have made about the safe operation of boats. Whenever the skipper goes to sleep at night, he wants to be sure that the person in charge of the boat knows what they are doing. That is exactly the issue that we are discussing.

The transit visas that I mentioned were due to last some 18 months, expiring in September 2011. That is why we are having this debate in Westminster Hall today. Perhaps we can get an extension to those visas, or some concession or help from the Minister’s Department.

The hon. Gentleman has made a very good point about safety. Earlier, I talked about people getting to know each other and forming a bond. I have been told that one of the reasons why the trawler owners do not want just anybody is that it takes a person time to get used to each individual boat and to know exactly where certain ropes, anchors, grappling hooks and other pieces of equipment are, or where the hauler is controlled, on each individual boat. That is a genuine reason for keeping a man who has experience of a particular boat on that boat, rather than just seeking anybody. I have had fishing employers come to me to ensure that an individual who is skilled and trained on their boat remains on their boat. I wonder if the hon. Gentleman finds exactly the same thing in his area.

The area that I represent is exactly the same. The knowledge that is earned on one boat is perhaps slightly different to the knowledge earned on another. It takes time to get used to a boat. I mentioned that earlier, when I said that today’s fisherman has so much more to learn than his predecessors of 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. I want to back up the point that he made. This is a highly skilled job, and it should be put on the list of occupations for which employers should be able to get work permits, as long as employers can demonstrate that they have made every effort to recruit fishermen from within the EU. In those circumstances, they should be allowed to obtain visas, particularly to retain the staff whom they already have and in whom they have trust and confidence.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it is the crux of the issue, and of our requests to the Minister and the Department.

Of the 1,500 visas that were allocated, only 70 were taken up. That might prompt the question, “If only 70 people took them up, do we really need them?” but the fact is we do. It was not that the interest was not there. The key experience and skills of the people involved is very important, and those who were able to fill the void before the Filipino fishermen came have now, by and large, gone back to eastern Europe. There have been, and still are, experienced and qualified fishermen working on the trawlers, and the issue today is that fishermen and employers do not want to lose that expertise come September 2011, which is what they say will happen.

On a point of information, the period when only 70 applications were taken up was before the last election, when the hon. Gentleman was not in the House. I can remember it clearly, and people came to see me on the subject. The problems were those of bureaucracy, often in Manila. What with the employment agencies and the visa-issuing authorities in Manila, it was difficult to get people out and across. Had it not been for those bureaucratic hurdles, a lot more than 70 people would have arrived.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. Yes, that was before my time. He is absolutely right that there was a pervasive level of bureaucracy that prevented people from applying.

I am conscious of the time, and intend to bring my speech to a conclusion. It remains the case that most people signing on for the dole are dissuaded from seeking a job in the commercial fishing fleet because of the long hours, the low wages, the uncertainties of the weather and the dangers of the job. There is also the question of the investment that trawler owners need to make to train fishermen who might then choose not to stay in the job. Consequently, there is a need for non-EEA or immigrant workers to fill the gaps in onshore occupations, and a clear need for us to retain the fishermen, particularly the Filipinos.

The Migration Advisory Committee recently launched a consultation to update its shortage occupation list, and I encourage the UK fishing industry’s representatives to make representations as part of that process. That would, in basic terms, entail the monetary reward that is available to share fishermen reflecting the sacrifices they make and the skills they have. We need a long-term solution to the crewing problems that the fishing fleets face, and I encourage the UK Border Agency, together with the other agencies involved, to instigate discussions with fishing industry representatives soon. I also call on the Home Office and the UK Border Agency to review the situation regarding the temporary visas that they issued early last year. I am aware that the non-EEA fishermen to whom the visas were issued, together with the trawler owners who employ them, have acted responsibly and sensibly, and I suggest that that could and should be reflected in an extension to the September 2011 expiry date.

In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, commercial sea fishing is a valuable industry, often based in remote coastal communities. It employs highly qualified technicians, whose skill, and indeed bravery and courage, in harvesting the seas around our islands must be acknowledged. Many of our fishermen’s management responsibilities have been mistakenly surrendered to the EU, but that is a different debate for a different day. Assisting with employment in the sector is, I suggest, a small but very important way in which the House can help the industry.

It is a pleasure to be before you this afternoon, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate, and on drawing our attention to what is a very important issue in an industry that is very important to the nations represented by Members at the other end of this room. I know that he has tabled many questions, had many meetings, and has an honourable track record in raising the issue of staff who work on these boats, and in presenting the problems that he has encountered.

The fishing industry has had to face many challenges over the years, and those challenges will continue. Non-EEA ship crews travelling to UK ports to join vessels sailing into international waters do not fall within the normal immigration rules. They enter on “to join ship” visas, which allow fresh crews to arrive in the UK and leave on the ship. As many international-going vessels may leave port with no stated destination, awaiting orders to pick up new cargo, “leaving the UK” is defined as sailing beyond the 12-mile territorial limit, and that has been exploited by the fishing industry.

In some instances such exploitation has been permissible when the vessels involved are those that traditionally fish outside the limit—the deep sea fleet. However, inshore fleet vessel owners, who fish within the 12-mile limit, have wrongly taken advantage of the loophole to illegally employ the same cheap foreign labour as their deep sea fleet counterparts, resulting in many of the 1,000 to 1,500 non-EEA fishermen in the UK fishing fleets being employed illegally on very low wages and accommodated in unacceptable conditions while in port. That led to the tragic death of two Filipinos and one Latvian in a fire on a fishing boat in 2008. Although it is right to highlight the pressures on owners in finding crews to operate their vessels, it is simply not acceptable for there to be a race to the bottom, in terms of pay and conditions for those working in the industry.

The previous Government introduced a concession to address the situation with the inshore fleet, agreeing to a quota of up to 1,500 non-renewable fisher visas, to allow the industry time to adjust. There was an 18-month period, which comes to an end in September. Visas were issued on the condition that non-EEA fishermen were paid the minimum wage, and suitable onshore accommodation was provided while they were in port. As has been mentioned, fewer than 70 applications were received before the concession closed, and I note what the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) said about that being due to bureaucracy in the country of origin.

Both Her Majesty’s Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly Government are clear that people who come from overseas to work within UK territorial waters must enjoy the protections of the national minimum wage, and safe and proper accommodation. The minimum level of pay for skilled workers is £20,000. The minimum wage is circa £13,000. From what has been said, the industry believes that £13,000 is too high. In terms of having a certain standard of living and proper accommodation, the view of the Philippines Government in respect—

I do not think that anyone is saying that it is too high. What we are saying is that there are a number of jobs on land that depend on these people. I know of some men in the Philippines who have been almost in tears on the phone saying that they cannot go back to Scotland because they missed the date on the paperwork. They have lost quite a lot of money. They have been saving up and sending money to their families. They have missed an opportunity. It is a double hit for individual human beings: the people who work ashore in processing factories when product is not landed, and the individuals in the Philippines who are not getting the standard of employment that they might otherwise get.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I also heard the hon. Member for Strangford praise the work and the ability of the Filipino workers. I understand that, but it has been said that, were it not for the concession, applications would be made under tier 3 of the points-based system for non-skilled workers. There are high unemployment levels in those areas, and the hope and expectation was that, during the 18-month concession period, work would be done to encourage—

Time is short, and I need to make a bit of progress in addressing some of the points raised.

The hon. Member for Strangford raised the issue of the Home Office fees being set at £1,000. The Home Office visa fees were £470, and the legal fees were a decision for the owners themselves. Holders of concessionary visas are not required to sleep onboard the fishing boats, and should be accommodated safely onshore. The concessionary visas would not be allowed under the points-based system. As I said, they fall under tier 3 for non-skilled workers, which is now closed as a point of entry due to the situation in the local area. The Migration Advisory Committee determines the levels and advises Her Majesty’s Government. If there are skills arguments to be made, as hon. Members know, they must be made to the committee, as fishing and skills are devolved to Northern Ireland and Scotland. One key issue is that unemployment remains high across the United Kingdom and in fishing communities. It is for the industry, not Government, to work with the devolved Administrations to increase local engagement in the industry.

Those arguments were outlined by the Minister for Immigration in the previous Government. However, on reflection, he saw that the numbers were small and that the potential loss of employment onshore was great, so he reconsidered and introduced the 18-month intermediate scheme. I make a plea to the Minister to understand that the situation is, unfortunately, still with us. If we lose those men, unemployment on land will increase. As the Member of Parliament for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the outer Hebrides, I know that it will happen. That is why I make the plea to her to reflect as much, and have as much understanding as the previous Minister for Immigration, who certainly surprised me by changing his opinion remarkably quickly to be practical and sensible. I praise him for that, as I did at the time.

I am conscious of the time. What we have is a skilled work force. We need a concession for them, and we are asking the Minister to use her position within the Department to ensure that we get it. People have tried hard to get workers to take those places. It has not worked, but we have a skilled work force. There is a spin-off onshore. If we do not catch fish at sea, we cannot do further processing on land, and that is what leads to job losses.

In my understanding, the reason that that is not possible is that the work force are designated as non-skilled. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about the skill of the Filipinos, who are seafaring folk and understand the business, but in terms of the normal visa applications, they would be made under tier 3. The reason that people do not want to do the job is that it is cold, wet and nasty and does not pay brilliantly, not that they cannot learn the skills needed. I assure hon. Members that I am listening to their passionate pleas. I am not standing here like a stone wall; I hear the case being made. Nevertheless, I must push back a bit because of the levels of unemployment in those areas and because there has been the need for a concession.

The UK Border Agency is considering ways to ensure that all UK-based crew, including those whose journeys take them beyond the 12-mile territorial limit but not to foreign ports on a routine basis, will be properly paid and accommodated. Tier 3 of the points-based system for low-skilled labour remains closed, however. As I said, the case for changing that must be made to the Migration Advisory Committee. It is important that that case is made, as the Government can go only so far.

I recognise that the requirements of the concession may have created anomalies between the levels of payment of different fishing fleets and contracted foreign fishing workers working on the same vessels. Foreign fishers have a defined income, as was described, and certainty about income for the period of their contracts, which was obviously a difficulty, but that is coming to an end. The Government’s job—