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Transit Visas (UK Trawlers)

Volume 554: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2012

It is a great pleasure and delight for me to make my speech under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee, which selected the debate.

The aim of the debate is to draw to the attention of the Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), my concerns about the living and employment conditions of non-EU nationals on some UK trawlers and fishing boats. I pay tribute to the Catholic charity, Apostleship of the Sea, and to Martin Foley who came and briefed me. Following a problem in my constituency, which is one of the foremost fishing ports in the south-west, the charity drew my attention to the issue. I will not talk about that incident itself, as I understand it is now the subject of a police investigation. I will be careful to ensure that I do not in any way prejudice any investigation that might be taking place. I will talk in general terms about breaches of UK immigration law and the consequent abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, which is a stain on parts of the UK fishing fleet and needs urgently to be addressed.

The context is that the UK fishing fleet is the sixth largest in vessel numbers in the EU, and the second largest in capacity—more than 12,000 fishermen work in the UK. During 2010, the UK fleet landed 606,000 tonnes of sea fish into the UK and abroad with a value of £719 million, so it is no small industry. We should be proud of the UK fishing industry, and I, for one, am incredibly proud of my own Plymouth-based fishing fleet as well. Across many of our coastal towns and ports, the fishing industry is a mainstay of the local economy. It is an industry steeped in tradition. Deep-sea fishing remains one of the most demanding and dangerous occupations, not just in the UK but throughout the world.

In previous debates, I have talked about the physical dangers that many of our fishermen face every day. Those dangers were demonstrated last year when my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) lost her husband in a tragic accident while he was going about his commercial activities as a fisherman. The dangers that our fishermen face cultivate a deep sense of togetherness and belonging in fishing communities.

The overwhelming majority of employers in UK fishing fleets are upright, honourable individuals, who take great care to ensure that their crews are properly trained and fairly remunerated.

This issue is important to a great many constituencies across the United Kingdom, not least mine. I represent the fishing village of Portavogie in my constituency, and we also have the villages of Kilkeel and Ardglass in the South Down constituency. Many of the reasons for the problems that the hon. Gentleman outlines are related to EU bureaucracy—the quotas, and the reduction in the number of days at sea. The EU focuses on the financial position in deciding whether boats can go out and whether they can be staffed. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that when it comes to addressing the issue Europe has a lot to answer for as well?

I have my own strong view about UK fishing waters, which is that they should be brought back under UK control, but that is not really what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about living and employment conditions. Migrant fishermen should be treated in the same way as we would expect people who are employed in the EU to be looked after. Great care is taken to ensure that conditions on board vessels meet the highest health and safety standards, and that is very much the issue.

The phenomenon of migrant workers travelling to the UK for employment is nothing new. Such workers make a vital contribution to our economy. Like most sectors of our economy, the UK fishing industry has in recent years employed increasing numbers of foreign nationals, many of them drawn from countries in the developing world that have a strong maritime or fishing tradition. Although the majority of migrant workers are well looked after by their employers, in recent months I have become aware of foreign nationals working in the UK fishing fleet, on vessels owned by UK citizens, being subjected to the most appalling abuse and exploitation. Incidents have occurred in my own constituency.

I am not talking about abuse in the overseas fishing sector. Many Members will be aware of the long-standing problems of abuse, including slavery, in the fishing sector in south-east Asia. Rather, I want to highlight what is happening on some UK-flagged vessels, albeit a minority. Foreign nationals have alleged serious physical and emotional abuse, including beatings and sleep deprivation, while working on UK-owned vessels. Fishermen have described appalling conditions, which would indicate that they may have been exploited and subjected to forced or compulsory labour. My understanding is that non-EEA—European economic area—fishermen are brought here on transit visas to work in the UK fishing fleet. They are not entitled to work in the UK, including in our territorial waters, but some of them end up working, often temporarily, in UK ports before joining a fishing vessel, which, I believe, is in breach of immigration rules.

The transit visas that the individuals have entitle them to transit the UK to work on vessels operating outside UK territorial waters. Whether the vessels are operating inside or outside UK territorial waters is, however, unclear, yet the distinction is important as far as the fishermen’s immigration status is concerned. In the cases I have been made aware of, individuals arriving in the UK on transit visas end up working in the UK, so although we are told that fewer foreign nationals are working in the UK fishing fleet compared with a few years ago, I fear the reality is somewhat different. Fishermen are working on UK-flagged vessels, their identity and whereabouts unknown to the police and the UK Border Agency.

For a small minority of UK fishing vessel owners, the foreign nationals are a source of cheap labour—expendable and to be exploited for maximum profit. I am aware of some foreign nationals living in cramped, filthy conditions on board UK fishing vessels, spending days and sometimes weeks effectively trapped in UK ports, unable to leave their vessels and out of sight of the UK immigration authorities. It is time a light was shone on what is happening in parts of our UK fishing fleet. For the sake of the vast majority of the fleet, it is vital that the breach of our immigration law and the consequent abuse and exploitation of foreign nationals by a small minority of vessel owners is stopped.

First, I invite the Government to review and report on the practice of employing non-EEA migrant fishermen on UK-flagged vessels. Such a review should include an analysis of the application regime and procedures for transit visas. Secondly, I urge the Government to work with the police and the Border Agency to identify and expose vessel owners and crewing agencies that are involved in the exploitation and humiliation of migrant workers, and who fail to comply with international human rights treaties and conventions. I would like to see the Government work with the maritime authorities to develop structures and mechanisms to provide and enforce appropriate health and safety requirements in the fishing industry, including fishing-crew training. That should help to identify and weed out the unscrupulous operators who use foreign labour to circumvent established safe working practices.

Where it is necessary and appropriate to employ non-EEA nationals as fishermen in the UK fleet, we must work to ensure they are protected against abuse and exploitation and that they are given the full rights, including those regarding wages and conditions, afforded to migrant workers under current immigration rules. I also invite the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister to explore and report on the labour supply and training difficulties faced by the UK fishing industry that lead to the apparent necessity to employ non-EEA migrant workers. Why is it that in fishing communities plagued by unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, UK fishing vessel owners are not employing more UK nationals? Are increasing numbers of UK nationals unwilling or unable to work in the UK fishing fleet, hence the need to recruit people from overseas?

Finally, when do the Government intend to ratify the International Labour Organisation work in fishing convention 188/2007 and implement it in national law? The convention, termed a bill of rights for fishermen, should make a significant difference to the living and working conditions of fishermen, particularly migrant workers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on securing the debate, which I know is important to his constituents. I am, of course, looking forward to visiting his constituency some time in the new year, when I am sure we can discuss the matter further.

I am also pleased to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in the Chamber. I know he has a long-standing interest in this matter from a constituency and a wider Northern Ireland perspective. I listened carefully to what he said, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who has responsibility for fishing. He works closely with people from all parts of the United Kingdom when we set out our policy on fishing and fishing quotas, and when we have debates in the European Union. Thankfully, my job today is not to talk about wider fishing policy, but to talk about the specific issue of crewing and visas.

The use of non-European economic area crew on UK vessels has been an issue for several years, and I know that it is an ongoing concern for my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. The issue has also been raised in Northern Ireland and with colleagues who represent constituencies in Scotland, where fishing is also an important industry. The subject is complex and wide-ranging, and its scope goes beyond immigration. The concern raised by my hon. Friend’s constituent and the Catholic Church in his constituency is about the living and working conditions of people employed in the sector, and I know that that concerns my hon. Friend, too.

I will set out the background of the visa regime for those who work in the sector. Non-EEA migrants can come to the UK to join ships that are currently in the UK but operate outside UK territorial waters—those ships that mostly operate more than 12 nautical miles beyond UK territorial waters. Because those people are joining ships that operate outside the UK, they do not fall under the scope of normal immigration rules, which means they do not need permission to work. However, they do need permission to enter the UK to join the ship—effectively to transit, hence the title of my hon. Friend’s debate. To do so, they must obtain permission to join the ship, either by way of a visa issued overseas, or with the permission of an immigration officer at the UK border. Those provisions are necessary to allow international vessels to change crew, thus allowing fresh crews to arrive in the UK to join ships and outgoing crews to leave ships and return home.

Within the fishing industry, the arrangements mean the UK’s deep-sea fleet has been able to bring in non-EEA fishermen without prior permission to work because the fleet operates mainly outside territorial waters, which is a perfectly legitimate use of the immigration system. Migrants entering through that route are not migrant workers in the usual sense, so the system is not a loophole through which employers can bring in non-EEA workers to carry out work that is not deemed to be sufficiently skilled, as the work is largely taking place outside the UK. We recognise the need for migrant labour in some specific and highly skilled roles in the United Kingdom, but, as my hon. Friend said, businesses should be looking to the local labour market for opportunities to fill lower-skilled roles. That is why non-EEA nationals cannot come to work on vessels that operate within the 12-mile limit—the inshore fleet—under the “to join ship” provisions.

One of the problems in Plymouth and the area I represent is around incentivising local people to go out on the fishing boats. The danger is apparent, and there is also a skill level that has to be achieved. Those on the boats have great skill, because they also fillet the fish. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) asked, how can local people be more incentivised to participate in the job opportunities on fishing fleets?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I chose my words with care. I did not say that the work was low-skilled, but that it was not sufficiently skilled to meet our criteria. The Migration Advisory Committee, which is the expert committee that the Government often commission to consider the appropriate skill level required for jobs before we allow people to come to the UK from outside the EEA, did not think the jobs were sufficiently skilled. He raises an important point, however, which I think was the nub of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport: in an environment in which UK nationals are without work, what is the industry doing to ensure that we can train UK or EU nationals to the appropriate skill levels so that they can staff the inshore operations without needing to bring in people from outside? I will touch on that later.

Visas would not be issued for people to come to work on inshore vessels. People who work—or employ people to work—on vessels in the inshore fleet after they have come to the UK on a “to join ship” visa, or sought to enter at the border to join a ship, are breaking immigration law and behaving unlawfully.

Some years ago, it became apparent that some in the UK inshore fishing fleet were using non-EEA labour to crew their ships. The UK Border Agency made it clear that that was not acceptable and that immigration rules needed to be enforced in that area. However, genuine concerns were raised at the time, including by the Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments, that the UK fishing fleet relied on non-EEA labour and that immediate enforcement of the immigration rules would have a significant and negative impact on that fleet.

In light of those concerns, in March 2010, the previous Government introduced temporary—I stress the word “temporary”—concessions that allowed for up to 1,500 visas to be issued to non-EEA fishermen to work on the UK inshore fleet to give it sufficient time to transition to using local labour for such jobs. In other words, that was to give it time to identify the labour requirement and put in place the relevant training mechanisms so that people could gain the appropriate skills to staff our inshore fleet.

Those concessionary arrangements came with strict conditions. Permission was granted only after appropriate assurances were given that the workers would be paid the minimum wage and—this addresses the point raised by my hon. Friend—that they would be given suitable onshore accommodation when their ships were in port. The take-up of the concession was relatively low. The route was extended last year, and we closed it down for good this August. We will no longer grant permission for non-EEA migrants to work on inshore UK fishing vessels.

The point at the heart of my hon. Friend’s concerns was about how we enforce the rules and ensure that people are playing by them. I shall also address the living and working conditions on board the vessels, which clearly concern him and his constituent, because although the UK Border Agency is not responsible for enforcing that part of the law, and thus I will not go into incredible detail on this, our officials do some work in that area and we work closely with other agencies.

The “to join ship” visas for the fleet that operates outside our territorial waters are granted in the same way as any other visa. They are issued only when a UK Border Agency official overseas or on the border is satisfied that the applicant meets the requirements of the rules. The official therefore has to be satisfied that the applicant is genuinely joining a ship at a UK port and that that vessel will be leaving UK territorial waters in the near future.

The British Chamber of Shipping has expressed concerns that “to join ship” visas are increasingly difficult to come by, particularly for ships that are tied up awaiting cargo, sailing instructions or repair. Our officials rightly question whether crew are actually required in such circumstances, given that the ship will not depart port imminently. The individual circumstances of each application are examined by officers from the UK Border Agency and UK Border Force on a case-by-case basis. Our Border Force officers will always question fishermen and other crew seeking to enter the UK. If they have any doubts about the individual, the company or the vessel that they are joining, they will refuse entry to the United Kingdom.

UK Border Force also regularly undertakes enforcement action to ensure that those who employ non-EEA fishermen do so legally. Border Force cutters regularly patrol UK waters, monitoring vessels, gathering information and intervening when appropriate and necessary. The monitoring allows us to ensure that vessels using non-EEA crew who are here on “to join ship” visas are indeed operating outside UK territorial waters. Alongside that, regular enforcement visits are conducted to ensure that those working on board vessels have the right to do so.

If we find people working illegally on vessels, we treat them in the same way as any other immigration offender and they are liable to removal from the UK. If employers employ people illegally on inshore fleets, they are liable to fines of up to £10,000 for each illegal worker employed. As with all our enforcement activity, we do not accept people hiring outside the immigration rules, and we seek to deal with that in a tough manner.

During the course of enforcement activities on vessels, Border Agency officers may come across unsuitable living and working conditions. There have been tragic consequences of such conditions. My hon. Friend may be aware of the fire on a fishing boat in 2008 in which two Filipino and one Latvian crew member were tragically killed.

Border Force and UK Border Agency officers are concerned primarily with enforcement of the immigration rules and do not have enforcement powers in areas such as employment rights or health and safety, but we certainly do not close our eyes to those things. If, in the course of enforcing immigration rules, Border Force and Border Agency officers come across such conditions, they will draw them to the attention of the appropriate enforcement officials in other agencies, such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, with which we have close working relationships. Our enforcement activities are often multi-agency efforts involving the police, the MCA and other agencies, so not only do we enforce immigration rules, but our partners enforce rules on employment rights, the minimum wage and health and safety conditions.

We will continue to work to ensure that all those who do not have a right to work here cannot do so, that those who have a right to work on ships outside UK territorial waters can do so, and that any rogue employers who exploit vulnerable workers, as my hon. Friend suggests, face the full extent of the law. If the inshore fishing fleet requires people to work in the industry, it should look first to the domestic labour force and ensure that people there are appropriately trained.

My hon. Friend raised a point about the International Labour Organisation convention. That, of course, is a matter for the fisheries Minister, so I will draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to his attention and ensure that my hon. Friend receives a reply outlining the Government’s position on the ratification of the convention from officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Minister.

The hon. Member for Strangford raised a point about training and skills, which are devolved issues. I know that the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are working to provide training to the local work force. The Governments, as well as the industry in those parts of the United Kingdom, are engaged in efforts to ensure that the local work force is appropriately skilled for our inshore fishing fleet.

I think that I have covered all the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and I say again that I look forward to visiting his constituency in the new year, when we can no doubt talk further about these matters.

I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend to Plymouth, when we will certainly want to talk about these issues with the organisation, and I take my hat off to the Apostleship of the Sea, which runs a good, effective operation in Plymouth for migrant workers who need help. Occasionally, the organisation finds that migrants do not have food and therefore has to provide them with some, and their living conditions can also be bad.

I am grateful for that extra detail. When I visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to talk about a range of issues, if it will be at all possible to talk about that to people at first hand, it will be a valuable opportunity.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the interest shown by the hon. Member for Strangford.

Sitting suspended.