I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on visas for non-EEA workers on inshore fishing vessels.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. This is an important issue in my constituency and in other parts of Scotland and the UK. Last Wednesday, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) led an Adjournment debate on this very issue, but it is important that Members across the House have another opportunity to express their views and opinions.
I am grateful to the Security Minister for responding; to use a fishing term, this has been landed on him because the Immigration Minister is in Cabinet today. I know he will respond on her behalf and I am sure that she will look closely at the points put forward by right hon. and hon. Members. I thank the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance and the many others who produced briefings for this debate. Given its importance to the industry, many wanted to engage with Members before the debate.
Let me give some background on my own interest. Although this is a big issue on the west coast, the western isles of Orkney and Shetland, and Northern Ireland, it is also an issue in Moray, although perhaps not on such a large scale as in other parts of Scotland. Back in March, I was approached by three fishermen: Douglas Scott from Lossiemouth, Neil Sutherland from Burghead and John Davidson. They visited me in my Forres constituency office in the same week the Government announced their initial findings with the European Union on a future fisheries policy. I assumed that they, like me, were unhappy with what the Government had come up with in Europe and were pushing to put across those views. But despite everything in the news that week about fishing and our links to the European Union, they came to speak to me specifically about the inability to employ non-European economic area workers on inshore fishing vessels.
I met Douglas Scott again on Friday in Lossiemouth, just as he was about to head up to Shetland to go fishing. He made it clear when he met me in March and again this week that unless the Government do something about this situation, there is a real risk to the people who are going out on those boats: they are not crewed in sufficient numbers to ensure that everyone is safe. Indeed, some boats cannot leave the harbour at all. Douglas was unwell for some time and because he had no crew, his boat lay idle in Lossiemouth harbour, not making an income for him and leaving the waters unfished.
This is a hugely important issue for Douglas Scott and so many others. The solution is quite simple, and I will come on to it. Douglas is now a little better and is able to go out on his boat on his own. When I left him on Friday, he was going to spend 24 hours on his own in his boat, steaming up to Shetland—port to port from Lossiemouth to Lerwick takes 24 hours. When he gets up there, he has to go back out almost immediately and start fishing, to start making some money, all on his own. It is a real safety concern if an individual who has not been well recently has to go out single-crewed because he cannot recruit non-EEA workers—who want to work with him: they are calling him on a weekly basis, pleading him to employ them again—because of visa changes and the problems being experienced with visas in this country.
We all remember the extremely successful concession scheme that operated from 2010 to 2012. That is basically what I am calling for: the Government should reintroduce that successful scheme, which worked successfully from 2010 to 2012, in which non-EEA workers were able to work within the 12-mile limit. We should dwell on the 12-mile limit for a moment: why do we make that division? Fishermen can fish 12.1 miles from the shore for unlimited amounts of time and are able to recruit non-EEA workers, yet at 11.9 miles or 12 miles they cannot. Mr Scott, who is currently fishing for squid off Shetland but fishes for many other species throughout the year, is not able to recruit these workers because he fishes within the 12-mile limit.
This Government rightly have concerns about immigration and have targets to ensure that it does not increase too much, but this is not a sector that would cause significant problems to immigration numbers. The catching sector employs 4,000 people across the country, 800 of whom are non-EEA workers and 400 of whom are from the EEA—we are speaking about a small number of workers. Should the Government introduce the concessions that I am asking for, the numbers would not significantly alter the migration and immigration figures that they rightly look at when they determine their future policy.
The Government were right back in 2010 and 2012 to have concerns about the welfare of these workers; unfortunately, there were some instances where the welfare of workers was not as good as it should have been. A briefing from the Fishermen’s Mission for this debate cited a small number of examples about the conduct of employers towards their Filipino or other non-EEA workers that are not good enough. One received only four hours’ sleep in 96 hours and had been forced to sign what was reported to be a contract of employment that stipulated that they would be paid far less than originally agreed.
Unfortunately, there are some examples of the system letting down the non-EEA workers, but I and other right and hon. Members have received representations that reintroducing the scheme with a strong emphasis on the welfare of the non-EEA workers will improve their terms and conditions, rather than reduce them. We could have a better system—not just for the fishing industry and the skippers, but for the people who come to work here. As I said, people want to work on our boats in Scotland, Northern Ireland and around the coast of the United Kingdom. If we reintroduce the scheme properly, we can meet not only the needs of the industry but the welfare aspirations of those who will work in it.
Let me now look at the skills required for the job. In an ideal world, we would have enough people in the local communities to do all these jobs—people born and bred in the local community who want to go to sea. That happened in the past, but unfortunately, as with many other industries, it has dwindled. It may come back again and we all hope it does. To reference another fishing saying, there is a sea of opportunity from this country’s leaving the European Union and the hated common fisheries policy. We will regain control of our fishing waters and fisheries and will be able to ensure that that sea of opportunity allows us to increase the number of local people employed in the industry.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On skills, does he agree that the topic he has wisely chosen for debate is a perfect example of what we hear discussed quite often in the immigration debate—that we should decide what type, what quantity and what skills we need to try to help our industries here in the United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will come on to that point. Skills are important. If a local workforce has those skills, that is great and we want to encourage it. Indeed, the Scottish White Fish Producers Association said in its briefing that this year has been its best year for recruitment, with 30 new people coming from local communities, doing their courses and ready to go out on to fishing boats.
But 30 is not enough to ensure all our boats are properly manned as we get ready to leave the common fisheries policy and the European Union—and, hopefully, to fish far more in our waters with more of our boats. The association believes it will take 10 to 15 years to have enough local employment to be able to fully crew the boats. In that period, we can either decide to do nothing and let the boats lie idle and go out of commission, or we can do something about it. As I said, there was a successful scheme that worked for two years between 2010 and 2012, which we can use in this country.
I want to spend a bit more time talking about skills because fishing has been deemed an unskilled form of occupation. I take great exception to that: I could not leave this place, go immediately on to a boat for several days and successfully deal with catching and processing fish. That is a skill in itself, and we should recognise it as such. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, it is a skill we need and one we should be looking for.
After Mr Scott, Mr Sutherland and Mr Davidson visited me in March, I wrote to the chief executive of UK Visas and Immigration about what they had raised with me as well as the skill level of our fishermen and those we are trying to encourage into the industry. I said, “I invite you to spend a day on a fishing boat in Moray to see for yourself the skills involved in the profession,” and was disappointed when the reply came with no answer to that point. Interestingly, the chief executive decided to ignore my invitation—I cannot believe anyone would ignore a kind invitation to come to Moray, let alone one that included a trip on a fishing boat. The reply did say, “We do not consider such workers to be unskilled, but they are not sufficiently skilled to meet the skills threshold for authorisation or permission to work under tier 2 of the points-based system, which is reserved for graduate-level employment.”
I say as a member of the Home Affairs Committee that we must look at that skill level and how we determine skills. I will be careful in my use of quotations, because David Goodhart, who I quoted at last week’s meeting of the Committee when we were questioning the Home Secretary, took great exception to my confusing his words. I paraphrased him in saying—these are not his words—that he believed that some industries where there is a local skills shortage and for which we cannot recruit non-EEA individuals should wither and die.
Afterwards, David Goodhart contacted me on Twitter to say that I had totally confused his position. I will now read out his words precisely to get them properly on the record. We had a conversation in which he said that he believes that if we cannot recruit locally in certain parts of the country, we should not use the immigration system to get people in to do the jobs. I asked whether he meant he wanted to give up on fishing. He said:
“Not on fishing in its entirety, no, but in certain parts of the country perhaps, yes.”
Mr Goodhart was quite clear that parts of the sector in parts of the country should be allowed to stop—basically, that is parts of Moray, with Mr Scott and Mr Johnson, as well as in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, parts of north-east Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom where they cannot get a labour force and it may take 10 to 15 years to ensure there are enough local people. I am sure Mr Goodhart will be tweeting me right now to say once again that I have confused his position.
I do not agree with Mr Goodhart. We should not give up on these vital industries, which have been the mainstay of our communities for so many years. Many communities in Moray have far fewer fishing boats than I would like, but those who want to be part of this great industry should be allowed to remain and flourish. If they need crew from non-EEA countries for that, we as a Government and indeed Parliament should ensure that that happens.
I mention Parliament, because this is not just a Scottish Conservative issue or Conservative issue. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, a member of the Liberal Democrats, had a debate on it, as I said; the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) has had meetings with the Minister about it; and Democratic Unionist party Members have also been in meetings with representative bodies and others. There is consensus across Parliament and across the parties.
When there is a Scottish debate in this Chamber or on the Floor of the House it can often be rather fraught, with much to-ing and fro-ing and disagreement across the Benches. There may be some disagreement today, but ultimately we all want the same thing: a relatively simple solution to a problem causing significant issues in our industry. Whether on the current problem of skills shortages or many others, it is important that the Minister notes that Members on both sides of the House and from all political parties are all saying, “Let’s get this sorted. Let’s do something about it.”
I also want to focus on my party’s manifesto from 2017. Much has changed since that election, but the points made in our manifesto have not. We said:
“Decades of profound economic change have left their mark on coastal communities around Britain”
and that we want to ensure that that situation changes going forward. We can stand by our manifesto commitment and ensure that we have the right people in the right numbers working on our fishing boats. Without them, we risk losing these inshore fishing vessels and a major part of our fishing industry.
I also want to focus on the arbitrary 12-mile limit, which annoys many fishermen. As I said, they can recruit non-EEA workers to fish at 12.1 miles, but not at 11.9 miles or 12 miles. That means we are fishing based on visa regulations, not on where the fish are or where they should be caught. That is nonsensical. How can it be right that our skippers must determine where they fish based on visa rules for recruiting staff rather than where the fish are and where they should be caught? That is not right, and it must change.
Several right hon. and hon. Members from across the House want to speak in the debate. I am grateful for that and for the cross-party support I had to secure the debate. I also make reference to the Backbench Business Committee, which was gracious in allowing us to have the debate today, which is important.
In response to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the Immigration Minister said she was considering the report of the Migration Advisory Committee, which will not report until September. However, as I have said—I hope the Minister has heard this—we are not looking for a new solution or to consider the points of that committee, because it will surely come up with the same answers we have. This is an immediate problem, so we do not need to wait until September to find out what will happen and whether it will get worse. This problem exists now, and it also has a solution now. We do not need to wait for that committee to tell us the answer, because it is simple: reintroduce the system we had in 2010 to 2012, with caveats ensuring proper welfare standards for non-EEA workers, and allow our fishermen that sea of opportunity they want to use.
The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance said in its briefing that the new policy would provide for “controlled and limited immigration.” The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association and the Orkney Fisheries Association both say that just 60 experienced fishermen from outside the EEA would be required to crew the inshore fleet to the necessary levels and provide the volume of landings needed for the onshore factories to operate at a sustainable level. We need just 60 experienced non-EEA workers to ensure sufficient people in Orkney and Shetland and in the Western Isles—just one is all Douglas Scott is looking for. When we spoke on the harbour at Lossiemouth on Friday all he wanted was one non-EEA worker to take the strain away from him, to relieve the pressure and to ensure that his fishing boat can operate to the best of its ability.
We are not looking for a huge influx or to change targets. We are looking for the Government to be considerate and to listen to the views of the industry. The industry is crying out for that. It is a small problem in terms of the number of people involved, but it is huge for the communities involved—stretching north to south and east to west. It is a huge problem given the issues resulting from not being able to recruit non-EEA workers: boats tied up and left idle and fishermen going out on their own in dangerous conditions without the necessary support.
The solution to that huge problem is for a small fraction of our immigration policy to be changed. The reintroduction of the policy from 2010 to 2012 could have a huge benefit to our industry, to the Mr Scotts and to fishermen across the country. That is why I was so keen to ensure that this debate went ahead, and why I am interested to hear the response from the Minister for Security. Although the Immigration Minister cannot be with us today, I know she took on board the points raised by all right hon. and hon. Members during last week’s Adjournment debate. We need a solution to this issue—and quickly.
The Immigration Minister has agreed to come to Scotland during the summer recess—she did not agree to get on a fishing boat in Moray, but if the Security Minister would like to take up that offer, he would be most welcome. We need as many people as possible to go to those communities, listen to the Mr Scotts and others, and hear about the problems caused by the policy and the benefits that this small change could make to people’s communities, boats and industry.
As I said, leaving the CFP and the European Union brings great opportunities for Scotland and across the UK. Let us not be brought down by the stubborn refusal of the Government to consider a sensible solution that is staring us in the face. I hope that the Minister and Government will review this policy and come up with a solution that meets the needs of fishermen in Moray, and across Scotland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Order. Five hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak, so that leaves roughly eight minutes each to allow the winding-up speeches to start no later than half past 10.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and not just on the same football team, which we have done from time to time here in the House of Commons. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). As we know, he is no stranger to football matches either, because he is our referee and a linesman. He is correct to say that this is a much-needed debate, because we need people, primarily from the Philippines and Ghana, to work in our communities on the west coast of Scotland, as well as other places in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I want those people to come, as do my community, islands, fishermen, processors, bosses and staff. The local council wants them to come, as do development agencies and the Scottish Government. In short, I cannot think of anybody in my community who does not want fishing boats to work with able and skilled fishermen from primarily the Philippines and Ghana, which are non-EEA countries. The men I have met from those countries have been cracking, fantastic people, and we are fortunate that they have chosen to come to our part of the world to work.
About a month or six weeks ago, there was a report on “Channel 4 News”, and Alex Thomson came to my native island, Barra, to do a piece on why fishing boats were tied up. He could see clearly the lack of crew. As he was filming—this was one of the most instructive parts—Donald Joseph MacLean’s phone went off, and it was someone phoning from the Philippines, asking when he could come back. He had worked on Barra before, but he found himself stuck in the Philippines, desperate to return to the Hebrides to work, but he could not. I know of examples of other fishermen who want to return not just to Scalpay and Harris, but to the very boats and fishermen they worked with in the past, yet they are not able to do so.
Families want people to come back. These people are not immigrants; they are migrant workers and there is a huge difference. Their Government want them to come and the Philippine embassy in London wants them to come—I am struggling to think of anybody who does not want them to come. Indeed, these workers are much needed. The underlying case in our communities is that families are smaller. Thirty or 40 years ago, when I was a youngster, I was in a family of three and we were a small family. All the families I went to school with had six or eight children; one family had 14 children, and 10 or 12 was not uncommon. Now families have two or three children, and employment in my constituency is about half the UK average. When young people are trained, they usually do well in school and then go off elsewhere. Young people who get a start on fishing boats soon find themselves with capable handlers. They get a plethora of opportunities elsewhere, and they leave the fishing boats stuck without crew.
In many ways we are a victim of our own success, but unfortunately fishermen and fishing boats are at the bottom end of the pecking order. It is annoying that those boats are often tied up, as they are also the lifeblood of the communities that have enabled so many of us to put down an anchor. That situation of success is causing the current problems for fishing boats.
We need fishermen for the safety reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Moray. Imagine single-handedly taking a boat over 24 hours from the east coast of Scotland to Shetland. There are a number of reasons why, ideally, we do not want anyone to do such a job, but we need people with those skills. Despite what the Migration Advisory Committee says, these are skilled jobs. I will not go out on a fishing boat this summer to do a job that I know people from Ghana and the Philippines can do, and neither will the hon. Gentleman or the Minister for Security and Economic Crime. That is a fact of life.
Given all I have said, and the welcome that we wish to give people who come to the islands, the problem is simply down to a person in London saying, “No”. I have dealt with six or seven Immigration Ministers as, I am sure, has the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)—the rueful grimace on his face indicates that he has had much the same experience over the years. When the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was Immigration Minister, he was not afraid to make things happen, but now what is the fear? The fear is Daily Mail politics. I gave one Immigration Minister an article from The Mail on Sunday that supported the rights of these fishermen to come here, and the tension almost eased from his face. Unfortunately, for far too long this Government have been led by nasty treatment and thoughts towards migrants, which is costing our economies badly.
I encourage the Security Minister, and the Immigration Minister, to realise that they have many allies in this matter, and they should not be afraid of newspapers, or whatever, that might misconstrue what is going on. I will stand full square by the Minister, and if he manages to get a change today, he will find that the first press release will be mine, praising him for his courage in bringing about that much-needed change.
Immigration targets are important and the Government are right to have them, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that in this case the numbers involved are so small that the Government could make a sensible change without it affecting the overall target?
The hon. Gentleman is on the path to righteousness—he is quite right. However, we can go a step further. I raised that point at the Home Office, and I was told, “Oh well Angus, it’s very easy for you to say that, but we’ve got our manifesto in one hand and the economy in the other hand”. I said, “It’s a no brainer; choose the economy”—they have ditched the rest of the manifesto anyway, as we have seen over the past couple of months. In reality, migrant workers come for 10 months and they do not affect the stats—the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) knows that as well and he is nodding. This situation goes beyond worries about stats—I think those stats are spurious anyway, and they have led to many erroneous decisions—because we have a clear economic case. Let us get those people in, and get them fishing.
The hon. Gentleman has touched on this point, but it is worth re-emphasising. These migrant workers are just that—they are not looking to come to the UK and settle. They want to go home to their families back in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ghana, and we must make that clear distinction.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I cannot understand what people prefer about the sunny Philippines when they could be living on a fishing boat in the rain on the windy west coast of Scotland or Northern Ireland, but that is just me.
The Home Office also mentioned welfare, but I would argue that welfare is far better on the west coast of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where boats go home each night. If the Government are that concerned about welfare, they should check every boat outside the 12-mile limit. As the hon. Member for Moray said, those boats are fishing 92 hours on the trot, and giving people perhaps four hours off. We do not know what is happening on those boats. People are illegally working because they are outside the 12-mile limit. Just about the entire west coast of Scotland is inside the 12-mile limit, even though the waters go further than 12 miles. That is a good thing, and we welcomed it when it happened, because we kept those waters for our own boats on the west coast. Now we have been snookered by the Government in London and the Home Office, which are focusing on security rather than the economy. With the greatest respect to the Minister, it is instructive that they have sent the Minister for Security to deal with this immigration matter, and that will annoy many people.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I know he is a decent fellow but that is a slightly cheap point. I am here because the Immigration Minister is currently giving evidence to a Select Committee. She responded to the almost identical debate last week, but she cannot be in two places at once. She is incredibly happy to engage with all Members on this subject, and no discourtesy is intended by sending the Minister for Security to respond to the debate. The Immigration Minister cannot be in two places at once—the hon. Gentleman might like to make politics out of that, but it is a simple fact.
The politics to be made out of it are in the way the Home Office does not see the economy and its needs, but sees migration as a security issue. Migration should be seen as beneficial to the economy. The Security Minister being sent to the debate is a totemic point that says it all about our dealings with the Home Office in recent years. I must be straight with the Minister about it. He is a decent fellow and probably means well, but he wears a particular Government hat and it does not help that the Security Minister is here.
The case has been made time and again by all of us—for the economy, jobs and the vibrancy of communities. The matter is a competency of the UK Government. We need them to act; it is their responsibility. They guard the power jealously and will not devolve it. We are not like Switzerland where 26 cantons hold half the visas. Everything is held centrally and it is the Government’s responsibility. The Republic of Ireland has an advantage, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has told me, because it can get fishermen in when it wants.
I am not sure how much progress we will get today but I make a plea to the UK Government, whose responsibility it is—the European Union is not to blame—to move. I am able to put things more strongly than Conservative Members from Scotland, although I am sure they feel the same frustrations. The UK Government—in particular the Home Office—must move, get on with the day job and get it done, so that fishing boats can go out and get on with their day job. The Minister may be smiling, but it is vital for people that the boats get to sea, the fish are caught, and jobs and the economy get going as a result. People in my constituency are frustrated, and I hope that I convey half their anger today. We need the pen to be lifted at the Home Office, to get the boats working and the people in question into the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for securing this important debate on fishing fleets around the UK.
The fishermen I have met in Ayrshire and at Westminster have advised me that the fishing industry is having difficulty attracting workers from within the UK to join fleets. It is expensive to operate and maintain a fishing vessel, and few skippers can afford to have their boats tied up at the quayside for any length of time, particularly when that is because of the lack of experienced and skilled crew members. Succession planning for a skilled labour force in the fishing industry undoubtedly has its challenges, particularly given that the younger generation, whether family members or from outwith the family circle, do not always see it as an attractive career. There is a perception among some people, rightly or wrongly, that the current generation is put off by the early starts, the fact that there are no guaranteed return times, the unpredictable weather conditions and the hard graft that is undoubtedly involved in going to sea. It would not be seen by their friends as a “cool” occupation. Yet, as many in the Chamber know, it can be a very rewarding career.
Regrettably, careers advice sessions nowadays are not likely to focus on fishing as an occupation. Perhaps we should encourage people to go to sea and earn a living as their forefathers did. Yet schools focus on healthy eating, and the health service promotes to the public the importance of vitamin D, of which I understand fish is an excellent source. Local workers, across the age range, may turn out in the summer months, when the money is good, the weather is better and it is safer at sea. However, skippers go out in all seasons and need to be able to rely on dedicated, skilled and capable crew members.
Given the succession and recruitment difficulties, many fishermen who own their boats seek to employ migrant workers, often from the Philippines, who have previously gained experience from having worked in their country of origin on tuna fishing boats. They are said to have a can-do attitude to work, and to be skilled and reliable employees. In his recent Adjournment debate on the subject, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) highlighted the fact that 800 non-EEA nationals are employed in the catching sector in the UK. However, work permits and visas prove problematic for Filipino workers and for others from the Indian ocean and south sea islands.
It is important that the Government—and it lies with them, as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) said—should consider liaising with, and building on the previous involvement of, the relevant foreign embassies. I understand that those embassies assisted with seaman’s books to facilitate migrants’ compliance with the law. In the past, discretionary visas, which I believe were issued for two years, attracted those workers, who were happy to come to the UK, including Scotland. On visas, skippers of boats were obliged to provide onshore accommodation and confirm the condition of their boats, as is quite right. They should be safe—and they are, in the majority of, if not all, cases. I understand that the issuing of such visas may have ended simply because a small minority of workers failed to respect the requirement to return home. However, why should that failure condemn the majority who did faithfully comply and whose services proved to be an invaluable asset to the skippers and the fishing industry? Transit visas are currently available, but they restrict such non-EEA nationals to working outwith the 12-mile limit. The very term “inshore fishing vessels” reflects the fact that not all vessels are suitable to go further afield. Also, the best catch at any given time may not be beyond the 12-mile limit.
If the fishing industry is to survive—that opportunity awaits—and, indeed, prosper and more boats are not to languish in harbours, we must take action. That cannot be tomorrow or the next day, or in September or October. We need that action now, to facilitate such workers’ entry, employment, safety and welfare. Yes, of course it must be policed, regulated and enforced, but not to the detriment of our fishing fleet or of a great opportunity to sustain but also expand it. To do that, we need the workers in question to be able to join fleets in Scotland and throughout the UK. In the long term, thought should be given to encouraging young people to make a career in the industry, as used to happen. As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said, the numbers in fishing communities in the islands of the west coast may be dwindling, but fishing could still prove an excellent career in future. I ask the Minister to recognise and resolve the issues we are debating, without delay.
It is always a pleasure to speak on this issue, and it is always good to see the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland agreeing on something. It is one of many issues that unites us; we can all sing from the same hymn book about it.
I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for bringing the matter to the House and clearly setting the scene. I was a member of Ards Borough Council and I have represented Strangford in the Northern Ireland Assembly and do so now as a Member of Parliament, and the issue we are debating has been a key issue throughout. Fishing is in my blood; I never worked on the boats, but my brother did and I understand the issues clearly. When I was introduced to the fishing fleet in Portavogie, I became aware of the heightened level of danger affecting fishermen and fishing boats. That reinforces the importance of fishing to people in Strangford, and in Portavogie in particular, as well as in Ardglass and Kilkeel.
With all the Brexit talk and the decisions over deal makers and deal breakers, there is no one among us who does not think about the subject during most of the hours of the day. Probably we all do: it is Brexit in the morning for breakfast, then for lunch and dinner and before bed—and on getting up in the morning it is all Brexit. We shall have more Brexit before the day is out, and I hope our appetite for it will be as strong as it was when it started. None of us wants to face the prospect of a no-deal exit from Europe, but there are things that are deal breakers, and to me the exclusion of non-EEA fishermen needs to be one of the things that is gone with the wind.
We need security of employment for the fishing fleet in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel. We understand there is a need for Filipino fishermen in particular, because they are dependable and they work hard. The whole thrust of their life is to do the job, which is why the fishing fleet owners in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel want them. Other Members have made a similar point about wanting Filipino fishermen to be able to come here. It must be possible to hire crew based on who can do the job, and not what someone’s passport says. Fitness for purpose is something that has often been lost in the eurozone as we focus on nepotism as opposed to ability. We must ensure that, going forward, that is not the case and that if possible our vessels can be filled with home-grown crew, but otherwise with whoever can do the job and fit in best within the vessel.
We in this Chamber are all aware of the issues at play here. It is good to see the Minister in his place; I know this is not his direct responsibility, but we look forward to his response. There are five tiers to the points-based system. The tier 2 or general visa is the main category for bringing skilled non-EU or non-European Economic Area workers to the UK. Generally speaking, the tier 2 visa caters only for jobs that are classed at graduate level with a minimum pay of £30,000 per year, and for jobs that are on the official shortage occupation list.
Tier 3, for low-skilled workers, has never been used. It has always been assumed that any need for low-skilled workers can be met from within the UK or European Economic Area, but it cannot. That is why this debate is important and why the fishing fleets across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland need the opportunity to introduce this new tier system, enabling the Filipino fishermen to come to all the fleets across the UK and in Northern Ireland.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on bringing this debate. My hon. Friend will know that we have a lot of people working across the wider spectrum of the agri-food industry from other parts of the European Union and from outside the European Union. Surely, if accommodation can be reached there, it can be reached on the fisheries side. It does not make sense.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend and colleague. To reiterate the comments of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), I must say that the hon. Members here who met the Minister are united on the simplicity of what we are asking for. It cannot be any more graphic or easily put together than it is.
The hon. Gentleman is putting the case a lot more calmly than I did, because I am so frustrated by this. Was his heart lifted when he saw a few weeks ago, when the new Home Secretary came in, that the Financial Times raised the issue of doctors and nurses on the Monday and, by Friday, the pen was lifted and it was sorted out? It is as easy as, “Lift the pen. Sort it out, Home Secretary.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is that simple. If we have a willingness to do it, let us just do it. We do it for the right reasons—not just because it feels good but because it helps the industry, as those of us who represent fishing villages know. My local fishermen cannot speak highly enough of the ability and work ethic of those from the Philippines, and yet they have been prevented from utilising people who, while they may not be highly skilled on paper with degrees and letters after their name, undoubtedly have the ability and fitness for purpose that is needed.
I often quote my mother in this House. I do so because she is a very wise woman, not because she is my mother and I am her son. She is very wise. My mum often says, “Letters after your name don’t mean anything to someone whose house is flooded and needs a plumber.” Letters do not mean anything in that trade; experience and know-how do. Fishing is the same. Degrees will not be able to read the sea or the sky, but experience will. A degree does not tell someone how to catch fish, to follow fish on a boat or to stand without falling over. This is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we need the people to do it.
In my discussions with local fishermen, I have found that they particularly value the Filipinos who come as migrant workers. They are far beyond labourers; they bring in immense skills, whether in engineering, safety or dealing with vessels. They bring important skills to the fishing fleet in Scotland, Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. They are more than simply labourers. They bring great skills to the fishing fleet. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that they bring skill; I think if the Home Office looks at this issue it will see the skills that the Filipino fishermen have. They should fall into tier 2, where we can enable them to be accepted. I think the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar is right when he says it is a simple issue. I read the same article in the paper that he did. The Home Secretary accepted that there was a methodology that justified the right for doctors and so on to come in. By the same logic, that should happen here as well, and I would like to see it take place.
We want to see the Filipino fishermen allowed in. Under the transit visa provisions, non-EEA nationals cannot come to work on vessels that operate wholly or mainly within the 12-mile limit. People who work, or employ people to work, on inshore vessels after they have come to the UK on a transit visa or sought to enter at the border to join a ship are breaking immigration law.
Even more important, prawn trawlers, for example, operate by dragging a trawl net across the seabed to catch prawns, so only certain parts of the sea can be fished. The sea off the west coast of Scotland, containing the sea of the Hebrides, the Little Minch and the Minch, is a particularly good fishing ground for langoustines, but these areas are also well within territorial waters, as is most of the sea around Northern Ireland. Prawn trawlers have one of the highest demands for non-UK crew. Therein lies a key issue for my constituents and for the constituents of other hon. Members present. The difference is down to geography and, as usual, the postcode lottery does not work in favour of my constituents.
I, along with other interested MPs— the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid)—met with the Minister for Immigration and had a very forthright meeting, in which we tried to press collectively, from our four different parties, the importance of this issue. I know that the fishing organisations in my area are currently working hard to address the fact that, despite the demands of their difficult and often dangerous job, fishing vessel crew members are not deemed to be sufficiently skilled to fall within the ambit of tier 2. We need these workers to be elevated to tier 2, or tier 2 to drop down to that level. I feel the frustration that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar expressed; I am not always cool, but I try to make the case in such a way that people can understand the need to do it.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I sit on with other colleagues and hon. Friends, is doing an inquiry into fishing. One of our recommendations is that the issue of Filipino fishermen should be addressed. I am conscious of the time, so I will make one last comment. The Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland did a trawl—if I can use that pun—across the whole of the UK and Europe for 150 job vacancies. That is the Department, not Jim Shannon or the local councils; it was the Northern Ireland Assembly when it was functioning. We got some 30 replies to that from the whole of Europe, and only 10 applicants were suitable for interview. Eight attended the interview; six were chosen, of whom one did not turn up; five took the jobs. We have 145 jobs that Northern Ireland’s DFI cannot fill.
We have done everything we can on this. The local Assembly has tried. We now look to the Minister and the Home Office to do the same thing as for the doctors and nurses—to bring in the Filipino fishermen who would help our industry to thrive. When we are out of Europe, on 31 March 2019, we will need an industry that is able to respond to what we can do when we advance. I thank the hon. Member for Moray again for introducing this debate. Everyone is united in this. All we need now is for the Minister to say, “Yes, let’s do it.”
I have two more hon. Members who wish to speak. Some hon. Members have not quite followed the guidance, and we have to finish Back-Bench speeches by half-past 10, so it would be helpful if the remaining speakers could look at that and split the time between them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this important debate, one that is significant to his constituency and to my own. He has been a champion of the fishermen and the fishing industry in the north-east.
The fishing industry in the UK is a key component of our economy. In 2016 alone, the value of landings by the UK fleet was worth approximately £l billion, with more than 10,000 jobs resting on the industry, and many others in the supply chain. Just last month, the Secretary of State for Scotland and I had the pleasure of visiting the Dawnfresh Seafoods site in Angus, a thriving business and a key employer in the region. That business demonstrates every day how fishing touches every corner of Scotland. Drawing its stock from the north-west of the highlands, with processing in both Uddingston and Arbroath, sustainability is at the core of what it does—a reflection of how Scottish fish management has improved dramatically in recent years.
Unfortunately, it is undeniable that the UK fishing industry has faced its difficulties over the last few decades, but our fishing fleets are largely family businesses that have devoted many generations of service to the industry, and we must do all we can to harness the potential going forward. In the wake of the recent difficulties, and given the importance of this industry to the UK Government, the Government must do everything possible to encourage and nurture this important sector. Ease of access to suitable labour is one area where change is desperately needed. We need a system that reflects the skills that this country needs.
As it stands, non-EEA workers play an indispensable role in assisting UK fishing crews in delivering fish from the ocean to our dinner tables. These foreign workers, frequently from south-east Asia, possess a level of skill and knowledge unmatched by potential workers already in the UK. This is skilled work, necessitating years of experience, but it is wrongly classified as unskilled.
We must not suggest that local workers must take up these jobs, as other Members have said. Just as for the soft fruit industry in my constituency, we need to bring in that labour in order to secure the long-term future of the industry. As I said before, if a job is available in the UK, it goes without saying that any British citizen should have the opportunity to apply for it. However, there are all too frequently not the candidates or even the necessary numbers to allow UK fishermen to carry on their trade. I hope the UK Government will take the necessary steps to ensure that non-EEA labour is made more readily accessible to the UK fishing industry, not only to protect our economy but to allow this vital sector the opportunity to enjoy fully the benefits of leaving the EU and the common fisheries policy.
All the evidence suggests that the current situation is having a detrimental impact on our fishing industry, and I urge the Minister to give a glimmer of hope that the Home Office is seriously looking to mitigate the issues unnecessarily posed towards it. We need a resolution sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing the debate. I recognise many of his concerns, as well as those of other right hon. and hon. Members, and they are shared by fishermen in my constituency.
The confirmation in the Government’s fisheries White Paper that the UK will become an independent coastal state and will take back control of its waters is welcome. It lays the groundwork for the revival of fishing communities long neglected by the EU and by Governments of all parties. However, leaving the common fisheries policy is the start of the process, not the end. If the Scottish fishing industry is to achieve its full potential, it needs the full support of both our Governments. It would be painful to see the industry unshackled from the CFP, only to be held back by UK immigration rules. However, we face that risk if the Government do not act urgently to ensure that the Scottish inshore fishing fleet can access the non-EEA labour that it needs.
Of the roughly 4,000 crew working in the catching sector around Scotland, around 800 come from non-EEA countries, with a further 400 from within the EEA. After Brexit, 1,200 fishermen—30%—will need to be sourced from overseas. The industry has not always been so dependent on migrant labour; traditionally, almost all crew came from local coastal communities, with few coming from inland, let alone from further afield. Due to the constraints of the CFP over the years, there were simply too many UK vessels chasing too few fish, leading to decommissioning schemes at the start of the century that cut the number of jobs.
However, the industry is already working to encourage the resurgence of fishing as an attractive career, as other Members have said, and it must be encouraged to do so. Foreign crew rarely settle in the UK or climb through the ranks to become skippers, even though in many cases they will have been merchant seafarers or captains of larger vessels in their home countries. The talented skippers of tomorrow are the local recruits of today. Young locals leaving school today are probably not as inclined to join the industry as their younger counterparts, who will progress through their education with more certainty of a bright future in fishing, assuming that we make the most of the opportunities presented by Brexit.
The Scottish White Fish Producers Association says that, as we leave the CFP, even with Government support, greater innovation and further improvements in training and upskilling, it will take at least a decade or longer for the Scottish industry to close its current local labour shortage. Our coastal communities cannot afford to wait 10 years. Without access to experienced crew members, vessels will lie idle, as they do currently. We will take back control of our waters only to let them go unfished; in many areas, there will simply be no more fishing industry.
Access to skilled migrant labour—these people are skilled—is necessary if the industry, in Scotland and across the United Kingdom, is to truly reap the benefits of exiting the CFP. After Brexit we must work on increasing the capacity of our fishing fleet, but we can only do so if the industry has enough crew to cope with the increased supply of fish. Currently, as other Members have mentioned, the industry relies on transit visas, which are conditional on non-EEA crew working outside the 12-mile limit of UK waters. That adds unnecessary complexity to the job and limits activity to where workers are allowed to fish, rather than where the fish are. For smaller vessels, which tend to fish closer to shore, these visa rules are more restrictive, if not completely unworkable.
The UK Government previously operated a concession that allowed some visas to be issued to non-EEA fishermen to work on the inshore fleet. The re-establishment of such a scheme would be most welcome, at least until a longer term solution can be developed. Since 2012, demand for experienced crew has actually increased, which we hope to see continue as we leave the CFP. Such a concession would guarantee workers the same employment protections as anyone else. As the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance has made clear, any new scheme must have these protections. We must ensure that the sector can access the labour it needs and end the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the 12-mile limit while ensuring the welfare of the non-EEA workers in the sector.
However, there is perhaps a simpler solution: recognising that fishermen are skilled workers and adjusting our visa regime to reflect that. The industry faces not only a labour shortage but a skills shortage. Fishing is most certainly not unskilled work, and many of the non-EEA crew working in the industry here are talented, seasoned deck hands. Like the home-grown fishermen of the past, they were born into, or least grew up in, a fishing or seafaring culture. As I mentioned, crew members from marine nations such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ghana generally do not look to settle in the UK. In fact, much inshore fishing activity is seasonal, so a similar approach to that currently being considered for seasonal agricultural workers could be possible.
My constituents in Banff and Buchan, including in the increasingly busy ports of Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Macduff, elected me on a manifesto commitment to not only leave the CFP but to work to ensure that coastal communities enjoy the vitality and opportunity they deserve. That means ensuring that the fishing industry gets the access to the skilled non-EEA labour it needs. The industry cannot cope with the current restrictions any longer. If our coastal communities and fishing industry are to enjoy the revival offered by our leaving the CFP, we need change now.
While I am thankful that the UK Government have been willing to engage on this issue, I stress, as have other Members, the urgency with which we need that change. It is an issue that could make or break the future of our fishing industry and our coastal communities, and I look forward to the UK Government’s swift action on it.
I thank hon. Members for their co-operation in making their speeches in a timely way. We now move on to the Front-Bench spokespeople. They have roughly 11 minutes each in which to speak, which will leave a bit of time for the wind-up speech at the end of the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. I commend the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for bringing this important debate. I will mention a few points raised by him and by other hon. Members.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the concerns he had received directly from fishermen. Those personal testimonies and experiences illustrate for us—better than the very good briefings we have received on this matter—the precise nature of the problems, including the Government’s policy on the 12-mile limit and their attitude to migration. I will come on to that later. The fishermen also called for the more customised approach for which the Scottish Government have also called for some time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is an excellent constituency MP, and he spoke with his usual passion on how much support there is across the board for non-EEA workers coming here, and of their being in many ways the lifeblood of fishing communities up and down the coast. He also mentioned how many allies the proposal has, and insisted that the UK Government begin to act on it.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) highlighted the difficulties that the industry has experienced in recent years in attracting local youngsters to the profession. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave us the Northern Irish perspective, as always, but also a personal viewpoint, given his family associations with the industry. He called for the UK Government to acknowledge the industry’s simple point: that it needs people who can do the job now, not in 10 years’ time. He also said that all in the UK are on the same hymn sheet.
However, it is worth remembering that Ireland is a part of the British Isles, and because of its independence it can in many ways make better choices specific to its own requirements; that contrasts with the situation that we are discussing, in which it seems that one size fits all. As I said, that is worth remembering. The hon. Members for Angus (Kirstene Hair) and for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) reminded us of the UK Government’s role, still, in turning on and off the tap of this vital labour source for Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom and Great Britain without due regard for the devastating impact on small coastal communities.
It is very good to see cross-party consensus on the need for concessions on visas for non-EU crew to keep our fishing fleets safely on the seas. A sticking plaster over a rotten immigration policy it may be, but it is a much-needed one. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, along with others in this place, has been championing this cause for some time, and it is good to see more recognition now of the absurdity of boats being tied up for lack of crew when people are available to do the job.
One of the things that sticks in my craw most about the rules on transit visas is that they squeeze hardest the smaller boats—those with one or two crew members, fishing daily from local ports. They struggle the most when staff are hard to find. The recent fishing White Paper said that the Government would encourage growth in the small boat sector. If they mean what they say for once, fixing this issue would be a good start.
I hope that the Security Minister and, through him, the Immigration Minister will reflect on the strength of the evidence that has already been presented and the importance of the fishing industry to Scotland and will act with greater urgency than they have indicated they are willing to do so far. It is clear from the figures that we have heard how dependent the whole industry is on non-EEA staff, so concessions should be the easiest decision that they have ever made. There are precedents: the offshore wind farm sector has a concession to allow non-EEA crew to operate inside 12 miles.
There is surely no need to wait for the autumn report from the Migration Advisory Committee, particularly as the MAC does not seem to be flexible itself when it comes to recognising shortage occupations and sectoral needs in Scotland. The issue seems to be that deckhands are not regarded as skilled by the great and the good who decide such things. I suggest to anyone who defines being a member of a fishing crew as unskilled work that they take time out this summer and get some work experience on a Scottish fishing vessel. When they have successfully mended a torn net in the face of a howling storm, they can come back to us and tell us that it is unskilled.
Fishing is not an industry that easily fits into a tick-box system for staff, but it clearly takes unique skills, experience and a certain type of character to do this job. The Scottish White Fish Producers Association, which knows a bit more about it than we do in this place, identified the need to recruit fishermen from outside the EU and found a similar skillset in fishermen from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Skilled fishermen who are willing to leave their families and come to do a tough job over here should be welcomed and given all the rights and protections of our EU workers.
My hon. Friend is summing up the debate fantastically well. I want to reiterate that I have prepared a press release into which I will insert the name of the Minister who lifts the pen and makes the change, with high praise. I hope that a Government who need some good news will at least grasp this one little straw and ensure that what we have asked for happens, and this summer. This is not a question of reports; we know what the arguments are. It has just got to happen.
I absolutely agree. I certainly hope that something will happen along those lines, although I remind my hon. Friend that last November the then Immigration Minister, now the Minister without Portfolio, promised to look into the possibility of running a pilot scheme in which seasonal workers coming from non-EEA countries could work for nine months to help the fishing industry on the west coast of Scotland. As of yet, I think, we have heard nothing further about that proposal.
I do not know how many Immigration Ministers we have dealt with and had this same discussion with. We have to educate them, tell them, inform them—whatever. We get the promise of jam tomorrow, and before we know what is happening, they have been promoted, sacked, moved on or whatever and we are dealing with another one. It is groundhog day on this issue with each and every different Immigration Minister; and in a few months’ time, given the rate of attrition in this Government, we will probably have someone else again.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is very difficult for the industry to deal with the revolving door of Ministers who constantly have to be informed of the important parts of their brief that they need to get up to speed with and deal with. Then they need to go round and visit all the different and important stakeholder groups and get to know them. Things are very difficult for the industry in those circumstances.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the contribution that she is making to the debate. Does she agree that the pilot scheme that has been intimated to us on a number of occasions—indeed, the last occasion was the last meeting that we had—is something that we are all very eager to see coming into place? It is one that the industry and the sector will work with, as the hon. Lady said, and elected representatives will also endeavour to ensure that it works. All the safety and all the employment rights that are important for it to go forward are things that the industry is committed to. If ever you wanted a good scheme, do the pilot scheme now.
I absolutely agree. There is nothing to be lost by looking at this proposal. There is a general will across parties and across the industry to make the pilot scheme work. I am sure that if a Minister fronted up and actually committed to it, all of us would be cheering to the rafters, as my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar points out.
I was referring to skilled fishermen and the fact that they are willing to come here to do this very difficult job. They should be welcomed and given all the rights and protections that EU workers have. The SWFPA chief executive, Mike Park, says that people have presented the case to the MAC and to various Immigration Ministers over the last few years, but on each occasion they were
“basically told to go away”.
A new scheme for non-EEA workers would be lifeblood to our fishing fleets—we have heard the evidence that it could take 10 to 15 years to get fully staffed from local sources—but it would of course be even more sensible for the Immigration Minister to accept that the one-size-fits-all immigration system is not the right solution. If she is worried that any sensible concession for fishing might open the floodgates for other shortage occupations, the solution is not to bolt the door and hope that they go away. Perhaps she ought to ask how the MAC compiles its list, why so many sectoral cases can be made and whether the committee’s approach to immigration is working in the best interests of the economy. Reducing dependency on migration by killing an industry that wants to employ people hardly seems a sensible way to go about things.
The root cause of the problem is surely inflexible, old-fashioned British bean-counting bureaucracy. The UK Government cannot blame Brussels. As has been pointed out, this mess was made entirely in Whitehall. Defying logic, the Conservatives continue to pander to those who want to cut the number of foreigners in the country, setting policies that satisfy those who blame immigrants for all the economic woes that this Government have presided over. That approach is a disaster for the Scottish economy and the demographic challenges that we face. As an inquiry by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs found, the populations of more than one third of Scotland’s local authority areas are projected to decline, and future population growth in Scotland is expected to depend entirely on inward migration. We have the space and the need to welcome more people who want to live and work here, yet we are enforcing net migration targets that are entirely counterproductive.
The ever more hostile approach to immigration has not only been damaging economically; it has been distasteful and inhumane and it reeks of racism. Despite all the evidence of the benefits that migrants bring, the Tories have doggedly stuck to the notion that cutting numbers is more important than meeting need. I continue to hope for a change of heart from the Government, or for devolved control of immigration policies so that we can do that better in Scotland, but this concession for fishing would not even ruffle the feathers of the people counters in the Home Office. The number of skilled fishermen affected would be some 1,200 or so—a number far too small to make a dent on its silly targets, yet crucial enough to have a massive knock-on impact for coastal communities across Scotland.
I urge the Government to do the right thing for the fishing industry for once. Our fishing communities need flexibility from the immigration system if they are to survive. They need support from this Government through their currently reserved powers on immigration, not intransigence. The need and the solution are clear. Decisive action would be welcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing the debate.
Fishing is an economically as well as culturally important sector for the UK. The UK fishing industry employs approximately 12,000 people, of whom an estimated 20% are non-EU migrants. As demonstrated by the passionate speeches in this debate, the sector faces an acute labour shortage. This is a common thread in a number of sectors: agriculture, care work, hospitality and the NHS are all already suffering from labour shortages. The net migration target, delays in the immigration Bill and lack of clarity in the Brexit White Paper all contribute to uncertainty and potential exploitation in these areas. The Government must get past Cabinet infighting on Brexit and provide these vital sectors with clarity and security for the future.
For the last eight years, the Government’s migration policy has been driven by a wrong-headed net migration target. Reducing numbers is put ahead of the concerns of business and our economy. Fishing is a prime example of a sector that has suffered under this target. The Home Affairs Committee found that the net migration target undermines public confidence,
“because it acted as a quarterly reminder that the Government was unable to control immigration in the way it had promised.”
As the Institute of Directors and many other business groups have pointed out, it is a completely random number, plucked out of thin air because it sounds good, absent of any understanding of the needs of our economy. Recent concerns around the quality of data underlying the target should be the final nail in the coffin for the net migration target. With such serious doubts around the data underlying these net migration figures, an immigration policy that drives only towards reducing the net migration numbers is impossible to defend.
The immigration Bill that was originally promised last year has been pushed back to the autumn, brought forward to this side of the recess and pushed back again to the end of this year. The Government have been saying for months that all migration concerns will be addressed by the Migration Advisory Committee’s report. I found it astounding that the Government do not feel the pressing need to address this issue. While there are, of course, concerns about migration post Brexit, a number of sectors, such as inshore fishing, are suffering labour shortages now, even with access to the free movement of labour. These sectors cannot wait for the vague promises of clarity in the MAC report in September. The MAC’s remit is broad. There is no guarantee for fishing, agriculture or any other sector.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct: we cannot wait until September for that. Although some of the newspapers might not be here, this debate is being watched outside. I have just received a message from my constituent. Christina MacNeil said:
“Surely this will be resolved as soon as possible—it’s not rocket science to see the benefits that will be gained.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
I agree with that comment. The sectors that are suffering will be central to the MAC’s recommendations. Even if they are, we will have to wait for a Government response and it will take time to implement whatever the proposed scheme turns out to be. The Brexit White Paper published last week contained only 20 paragraphs on immigration. They are very narrow. There is no mention of what the proposals will be for low-paid, so-called low-skilled workers, often found in the inshore fishing industry. At this point, there is no time for the Government to bring an immigration Bill before the recess. I hope that when we come back in September they will move quickly to provide clarity and reassurance to sectors already suffering from shortages.
I would like to address briefly the risk of exploitation in this sector. In the last 10 years, deeply concerning reports of slavery and human trafficking aboard British fishing ships have come to public attention. Isolated working combined with poor regulations makes fishing workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Remedies are often out of reach. Living conditions are often poor. Many migrant workers live aboard their vessels while in port. These vessels are not designed for long-term living. This sector is already hard to regulate. Certain visa arrangements are leaving workers at a higher risk of exploitation. The current transit visa system and 12-nautical-mile exemption leave loopholes open for exploitation. Without the opportunity to build a network in the UK, workers are less resilient. It is vital that whatever scheme we end up with, workers are not tied to their employers in the way that we have seen with domestic workers.
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has done good work in the area of labour inspection and enforcement, but its remit is very narrow, covering only food processing, agriculture, horticulture and shellfish gathering. The UK’s enforcement model is complex and confusing. A number of different bodies are responsible for different parts of the labour market. According to Focus on Labour Exploitation, the UK has one of the poorest-resourced labour inspectorates in Europe. The International Labour Organization recommends a target of one inspector per 10,000 workers. The UK falls well below that target, with one inspector for every 25,000 workers.
It is vital that proactive inspection efforts are increased as we leave the EU and new opportunities for exploitation arise. Self-identification among victims of exploitation is low. The most vulnerable to abuse are the least likely to come forward. This includes migrants, who, faced with a hostile environment, are fearful about their immigration status and potential immigration repercussions for them coming forward.
In conclusion, the Government’s migration policies have, so far, been driven by the net migration target and Tory infighting on Brexit. The inshore fishing sector provides stark illustration of the damage of this approach. The Government have again delayed the immigration White Paper. Sectors such as fishing cannot wait another year for clarity on their future workforce. The Government must get on with announcing their future migration policy and ensure that it provides adequate protection for vulnerable workers.
I remind the Minister to allow a minute at the end for the mover of the motion to respond.
Thank you, Mr Betts; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. I noted earlier the point made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) about the Security Minister answering the debate. The Home Office means no discourtesy by asking me to answer the debate. The Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) is attending Cabinet—not a Select Committee, and she answered a debate here only last week. She will always be available to do it.
I think they probably sent me, the Security Minister, because I represented north-east Scotland in the Scottish Parliament a long time ago. I have many fond memories—
Will the Minister give way?
No, we do not have time. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench spokesperson spoke for way longer than the other two so the Scottish National party has used up most of its time already.
I lived in Donside, with an office in Stonehaven, and have fond memories of meeting with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the Scottish White Fish Producers Association and the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association. I remember learning the differences between pelagic and demersal fish and so on. I have some experience. Indeed, I sat on the European committee and looked at reform of the Scottish fisheries policy when I was in the Scottish Parliament. At that time, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar was probably down here in Westminster. That may be why they sent the Security Minister; he has some experience and knowledge of those things. My grandmother’s family actually hails from Keith in Moray. A large part of my family, on both sides, are from Keith and Aberdeenshire. They were Unionists, I hasten to add, and still are.
I have listened carefully to the points that were made by all hon. Members and have noted the many concerns. It is tempting, as the Security Minister, to ensure that the Immigration Minister always attends these debates by simply going off script and just giving a commitment—I guarantee they will never ask me again.
I hear the strength of feeling, which is cross-party and deeply felt. When there is a skills shortage, whether in agriculture, fisheries or aerospace—which employs 6,000 workers in my constituency—it is incredibly important that skills requirements are met. Skills are like oxygen to an industry. We can debate regulation and tax, but skills are needed. That is not to say that we have to let employers off the hook for investment in their workforce. We should bear it in mind that while we remain members of the EU, we have a pool of 500 million people to recruit from. Youth unemployment in other fishing countries, such as Spain and Greece, is well over 30% or even 40%. It is interesting that we have been unable to recruit people from those countries. Employers have to ask themselves about wage rates and the Government have to ask themselves how we can do more to recruit people.
Will the Minister give way?
Sorry, we do not have a great deal of time. I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.
Otherwise, we are in danger of constantly undermining employment rights and the basic standards that we expect by grabbing people off the shelf from further and further afield to meet demand. That is something that we should not take lightly. We have to ask why only 10% of the English fishing fleet’s workforce are from the European Union or non-EEA countries, but 35% of the Scottish workforce and 53% of the Northern Irish workforce are. There must be a reason for the difference.
I referred to the Department for Infrastructure, which is responsible for this in Northern Ireland. It did a Europe-wide recruitment programme and filled only five out of 150 jobs. Clearly, a lot of effort has been put in by the Northern Ireland Assembly and by other bodies in the United Kingdom. With respect, that proves that we need to trawl more widely to recruit fishermen from the Philippines, because that is the only place potential workers are coming from.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has to be commended for making that effort, but we also have to mention salaries. Margins in fishing and agriculture are not large, which is a big challenge, because people cannot rustle up a high salary if they are not making much profit, but basic economics says that if someone cannot recruit, they have to look at terms and conditions, and obviously salaries.
My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister and I have looked carefully at some of the good ideas put forward by the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance. I am open to the idea of the temporary scheme that existed between 2009 and 2012, and I will press the Immigration Minister, and the Government more broadly, to explore that to allow some of those issues to be addressed. We have also had representations from the trade unions, which wrote directly to the Home Office to express their concerns about proposals to lower the bar for the admission of fishermen working in the inshore fleet. In their view, that might weaken our commitment to increase employment opportunities in the UK’s domestic maritime sector.
As a Home Office Minister, I understand the industry’s pressing need, but I also understand that that need is not unique to fishing but is clearly present in agriculture, whether that is soft fruit or other parts. It is also extant for other skills. When I was a Northern Ireland Minister, there was a need for skills in the tech and digital industries, because firms were moving from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland because they could find the skilled workforce more easily there. We have to tackle the skills issue in a way that reflects the pressing need, and invest in our domestic workforce at the same time. The Home Office should be open to looking to relieve some of those pressures temporarily, however, as it has in the past. I will press the case for doing that for fishing in the Department and to the Immigration Minister, as they are doing for other parts of the economy that face those issues.
As we approach leaving the European Union, it will be easier to strike the balance between immigration policy and domestic skills policy. The Government will obviously be listening to the industry and stakeholders about that to inform a new immigration Bill, in line with the new fisheries strategy that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published, which looks at what we will do with our fisheries after Brexit to ensure that we have the skills to match.
In the past, there have been successful short-term schemes, but we need to stimulate our domestic skills base as well and ensure that the terms and conditions are met in a way that looks after people who come here to work. In offshore fishing, where there has not been that restriction, we have seen considerable exploitation of workers in some cases. Border Force has stopped factory ships, where people are part of the human slavery that has been going on. We have to be alert to that position. [Interruption.] It is not independence, by the way.
We have to listen to the independent Migration Advisory Committee, which has previously looked at the issue. It is looking at several factors again as we approach Brexit, and we will be open to its research-based views and suggestions. The Immigration Minister has obviously heard the previous calls from hon. Members, and I will ensure that this debate is reflected to her when I see her later today.
Hon. Members should not think that the Government do not take the importance of the fishing industry seriously; we absolutely do. We do not think that people working on boats are unskilled—clearly, they are. I have been up to some of the fishing boats at places such as Fraserburgh and Peterhead, and my seat neighbour Fleetwood has one of the main fishing processors in England, so I am not blind to the industry. The tier 2 visa is for work at a graduate level. As a non-graduate myself, perhaps there is something to examine in the way we define skills after Brexit.
It is a serious matter, and we should be trying to get on and deal with it. We will listen to representations from all hon. Members, but we have to bear in mind the wider immigration picture, no matter which party is in government—the rules were set in 2008. It is true that immigration and skills affect the constituencies of the hon. Members present, who predominantly represent north-east Scotland, but also Northern Ireland and the Western Isles, but they also affect all industries, and we have to address that in future.
There is no substitute for long-term planning for skills. I am acutely aware that employment, long-term planning and education in Scotland have been the Scottish National party’s responsibility for a very long time. If the fishing fleets are desperate for workers, what have the Scottish Government been doing for the last 10 years to prepare their workforce and people to come forward and fill those places? The answer is that education in Scotland has declined under the SNP’s leadership, which is tragic, because my forefathers in Keith were teachers. That is potentially why there is a big problem. [Interruption.] Although they are crowing from the side lines, the SNP—
Order. Occasional comments are okay, but let us tone it down a bit.
The best way to approach a skills problem is through long-term investment, coupled with short-term measures to fill the gaps. At the same time, we need to address conditions and workforce problems so that people want to work in industries such as heavy industry, fishing or agriculture. I have listened to the genuine concerns constructively expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, and I will take forward his ideas to my right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister and into Home Office policy.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I am grateful for the way you have chaired the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) made a good speech, in which he described his local constituency issues and the issue that he has raised many times. In intervening on the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), he mentioned some messages that he had received during the debate. I also received a message asking, “How many times will Angus Brendan MacNeil mention his pre-prepared press release?” It was a big part of his speech. I hope that he will be able to send that press release one day, and we are all able to see it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) was right to highlight the skills of young people who want a career in the industry. We have to ensure that there are opportunities for young people in our communities to join the industry if they want, but there are not enough of them at the moment.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke passionately about the issue, which he has great experience of and has been dealing with for so long, as a council member, an Assembly member and now a Member of Parliament. It was useful to hear his experience of all those areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) made a call for mitigation sooner rather than later, which was echoed by hon. Members across the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) mentioned his considerable experience in the area, and rightly talked about the irony of taking back control of our waters, only to leave them unfished if we do not have enough people to work in them.
I am grateful that the Security Minister is present, and I understand why the Immigration Minister could not make it, because of a conflict with Cabinet. Like him, I served in the Scottish Parliament before I came down here so he has experience of the industry, having represented the north-east of Scotland. I was grateful to hear him say that he would press for a temporary solution and take back what has been said in the debate by hon. Members of all parties to the Immigration Minister and the Government. That is all we can ask for. An immediate solution would be great, but a temporary solution is one we would like. I am grateful for everyone’s contributions.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).