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UK Fishing Industry: Non-EEA Visas

Volume 658: debated on Monday 8 April 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

We are considering the matter of visas for non-European economic area citizens working in the UK fishing industry—sadly, not for the first time. In fact, I last brought this matter before the House on 11 July. Others have led Adjournment debates on the same topic on different occasions. It has been raised on multiple occasions at Home Office questions, most recently by me. Sadly, now, here at the beginning of April, we are no further forward.

I will not rehearse the arguments around the necessity for our fishing skippers to be able to employ crew from outside the European Union or the EEA. I suspect that that has been done to death. If we were going to win the argument by raising the issues, we would have won it long ago.

Tonight, I will gently remind the Minister of a couple of things that she told the House in July. I invite her, when she speaks, to give us something of a progress report. I will then consider the content of the Migration Advisory Committee report from September of last year which, according to the Minister when I last raised this with her, is now the basis on which the Government seek to resist the fairly sensible and, I would have thought, uncontroversial measures that we seek to have introduced.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his fortitude in this issue. The Minister, too, knows the reasons why we are discussing it. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that highly skilled fishermen from the Philippines, for example, and other countries must have streamlined access to this incredibly dangerous profession? Does he agree that the future of our fishing sector depends on it?

I do agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman not only for his assiduous attendance at these debates and at other meetings but for his use of the term “highly skilled” fishing crews. Those who go to sea to bring the fish home to put on our plates are highly skilled. The root of the problem is in essence one of attitude, which somehow classes those brave, hard-working men as low skilled. Yes, I agree with him.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem seems to be that when skill is defined, it is always still defined in academic terms? Actually, skill is an inherent ability that someone has to do a task, not necessarily academic at all.

Proceedings interrupted.

royal assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019

European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019.

On resuming—

I am sure we will all sleep better for that—especially knowing that Her Majesty will now be in a position to give her full attention to the matter of visas for fishing crews.

I cannot now remember the point that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) made, beyond the fact that I certainly agreed with it. [Interruption.] It was about academia—indeed. It is worth noting that those who serve on the Migration Advisory Committee and those who have been Ministers are all very learned people. I have long held the view that if we sent some of them out in fishing boats, and if we had more skippers in ministerial offices and in the Migration Advisory Committee, the problem would be solved next Tuesday.

This is a similar point to the one that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) just made. It is often argued that the crew members who are much sought after in the Scottish fishing industry and in Northern Ireland are often regarded as low skilled. We can argue about whether they are high skilled or low skilled, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we have a shortage of those very specific skills?

That is absolutely the case. If the crews could be found in the fishing ports that the hon. Gentleman and I represent, we would not be here tonight because there would not be a problem. The fact is that for a whole variety of reasons, which have been rehearsed in the past, the crews are not there. It is difficult for the pelagic fleet and the whitefish fleet, because it pushes them out beyond territorial waters, but it makes the viability of the inshore fleet, which routinely fishes within the 12 mile limit, next to impossible.

I remind the Minister that, in July last year, she said:

“I recognise that the fishing industry will be best placed to take advantage of those future opportunities”—

that is how she earlier described the post-Brexit situation—

“if it has the workforce that it needs.”

It is manifestly still the case today, as I can see from my mailbag and email inbox, that the industry does not have the workforce it needs. The fact that there are so many hon. Members in the Chamber tonight at gone 11 o’clock bears further testimony to that.

The Minister went on to say:

“Two key points will be to the fore when we consider the industry’s future labour needs. First, as we leave the European Union, we will take back control of immigration and have an opportunity to reframe the immigration system…In making sure that that happens, we will need the best evidence available, which is why we have commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to report on the economic and social impacts of the UK’s departure from the EU and on how the UK’s immigration policy should best align with the Government’s industrial strategy. The committee will report in the autumn, and the Government will take full account of its recommendations when setting out their proposals for the future immigration system.”—Official Report, 11 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 1082.]

She went on to acknowledge the case that many of us made about the urgency of the matter—it was urgent in July last year.

I now wish to turn the House’s attention to the Migration Advisory Committee’s report of last September. The section entitled “Productivity, innovation, investment and training impacts” on page 2 of the executive summary includes an interesting paragraph—paragraph 14—which states:

“The research we commissioned showed that overall there is no evidence that migration has had a negative impact on the training of the UK-born workforce. Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that skilled migrants have a positive impact on the quantity of training available to the UK-born workforce.”

That is a very small point, but I mention it because in the debate in July several hon. Members said that there was a real problem with the training available, and that it was because of that that we had had to resort, in the short to medium term, to bringing in non-EEA nationals.

One of the most disappointing parts of the committee’s report is that headed “Community impacts”, which is to be found on page 4 of the executive summary. It rates only nine lines, and the related part in the full report runs to some five pages only, most of which comprises graphs. It speaks about some of the issues, which the committee identifies as community impacts, and states:

“The impacts of migration on communities are hard to measure owing to their subjective nature which means there is a risk they are ignored.”

However, it goes on to talk about some things—for example, the impact on crime and on how people view their own communities—but there is not a word in that part about population levels, which is absolutely critical in most island and coastal communities to which the fishing industry is confined. There is nothing to be found about the fact that the inability of boats to go to sea has a massive impact on the shore-side industries, which in turn has a massive impact on the viability of schools, post offices and all sorts of local public services.

Following on from that aspect, the Department’s assumption that vessels can simply be crewed by locals is indeed just not true: it cannot be done. We must have a visa system that attracts multi-skilled individuals from beyond these shores and beyond the EEA to ensure we have a fully crewed fishing fleet to do the work required of it.

That is the other reason why I thought I would not bother rehearsing the arguments—I anticipated plenty of people doing so in the Chamber this evening. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I congratulate him on it. It is one I have made in the past, as have other hon. Members. It is as true today as it was in July, and it all contributes to my and my constituents’ sense of frustration that now, getting into the middle of April, we are still no further forward.

When the right hon. Gentleman held a debate last July, England was losing a World cup semi-final. I am pleased to say that the football fortunes are better this time, with Scotland’s women beating Brazil 1-0 tonight, so I congratulate him on any link there.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that there is a simple solution? Previously, we had a scheme that allowed non-EEA workers to work within the fishing industry. It was successful, and it did what it was intended to do. There is a simple solution for the Minister, which is to stand up at the Dispatch Box and say we will revert to that scheme.

That has perfect simplicity. I will not get into a conversation, with the hon. Gentleman in particular, on the subject of football—there are very few people in this House who know less about the subject than I do—but he brings welcome news to the House. The point about the previous system is a good one because it also has a bearing on the conclusions of the Migration Advisory Committee about what they describe, I think pejoratively, as “low-skilled workers”.

To quote from the executive summary again—I will look in a bit more detail at the substantive parts of the report in a second—at paragraph 36 on page 5, the committee states:

“We do not recommend an explicit work migration route for low-skilled workers with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers schemes.”

In fact, such a scheme has subsequently, however inadequately, been introduced. It observes, quite drily:

“This is likely to be strongly opposed by the affected sectors.”

It goes on to say at paragraph 37:

“If there is to be a route for low-skilled migrant workers we recommend using an expanded youth mobility scheme rather than employer-led sector-based routes.”

This is quite telling about the work of the Migration Advisory Committee, because it seems to be suggesting, when looking at sector-based routes, that it rejects such a route because those coming to the UK for these, as it calls them, low-skilled jobs, should then be able to move from sector to sector. It is ridiculous: the idea that somebody is going to come from the Philippines to work in a whitefish or pelagic boat out of Lerwick, and then go and take a job in a bar or picking fruit or whatever, just shows how divorced it is from the reality of what it has been charged with considering. But probably the most insulting part of this piece of work is the reference to youth mobility and a cultural exchange scheme for people aged 18 to 30 from a number of listed participating countries.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the fishing industry should be appealing to people on a career basis, but that, in the meantime, the Scottish fishing industry needs non-EEA fishermen, and the Government must recognise that and play their part?

That is absolutely the case. It is going to take a long time to get back to having fishing as a career, because the fishing industry has been talked down by teachers, career advisers and the rest for years now. I understand the reasons for that, but I think they are misplaced. It will be a long time before we change that attitude—and it is attitude that is behind this.

Is that not an issue when, particularly up and down the west coast, where inshore fishing is hit, we have skippers who own boats and therefore should be really successful but are not at sea because they cannot get crew?

Indeed. They cannot get crew, so they cannot land fish, which affects jobs in the processing sector. There is a ripple impact, which affects everyone from the shoreside suppliers right the way down the line.

Returning to the youth mobility scheme, the Migration Advisory Committee concludes, at paragraph 7.53 on page 118:

“If the Government does want to provide a safety valve for the employers of low-skilled workers then an expanded Youth Mobility route could potentially provide a good option. The benefits of this option are that younger migrants are more likely to be net fiscal contributors (because the scheme does not allow dependants) and workers have freedom of movement between employers, which is likely to reduce the risk that employers will use migrants’ visa status to hold down their wages.”

So, according to the Migration Advisory Committee, the answer to the crew shortages in our fishing ports is to crew boats using New Zealanders and Australians on a gap year. I just wonder what world these people live in. That is insulting, and it is not just an insult from the Migration Advisory Committee; since the Minister and her colleagues rely on the report as the basis for continuing to refuse the most modest and common-sense proposal, it is an insult from those on the Treasury Bench themselves.

My plea to the Minister is simple. We have made this case times without number. Will she now please start to listen?

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate, and I am grateful to the other hon. Members who have intervened.

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, this is not the first time he has had an Adjournment debate on this topic. The last occasion was indeed on 11 July last year, although I would like to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who made the point that England were losing their World cup semi-final. If I remember correctly, they were not losing while we were having the debate; it was not until we had adjourned to the Smoking Room that I managed to see England lose. As an English Member responding to contributions from a number of Scottish colleagues that night, I was very conscious that they may have slightly different ambitions for the evening when it came to the football.

At the invitation of the right hon. Gentleman, I would like to bring the House up to date with what has happened in the nine months since we were last gathered for a debate on this important subject. The first thing to mention is that I spent some of last summer on the road. It is always—perhaps particularly at the moment—good to get away from this place. I visited agricultural and fishing communities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I was able to listen at first hand to the concerns of those working in those industries. I found it incredibly valuable to hear what they had to say.

The second point—the right hon. Gentleman referenced this significantly in his speech—is that the Migration Advisory Committee issued its report on the impact of EEA migrants last September, with recommendations on the future system. The MAC took evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals and visited every region of the United Kingdom, and that included talking to representatives of the fishing sector. I recognise that not everybody agrees with the MAC’s conclusions—probably an impossibility, given the subject matter—but I do not think that anyone can dispute the thoroughness and rigour of its approach.

I very much dispute the rigour and thoroughness. The MAC has taken a broad range of views, in a broad range of sectors. It has given no specific consideration at all to the needs of the fishing industry. Will the Minister, either by going back to the MAC or else by some other route, ensure that we get the proper consideration of the industry’s needs that—as surely must be apparent from the parts of the report that I have read out—they have not yet been given?

The right hon. Gentleman will be conscious that the MAC’s commission was quite wide ranging—as I pointed out, it spoke to the representatives of the fishing industry—but he will also be aware that at present it is conducting a review of the shortage occupation list at all levels. Whereas previous reviews have looked at higher skill levels—I will address the definition of skills in a moment—this time round the MAC has been asked to look at all skill levels and so will consider industries such as fishing, which we have been talking about this evening.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) talked about skill levels, and I think it is worth expanding briefly on that point. As the Minister, I am conscious that when we discuss visas and immigration matters we often use the terminology of skilled and highly skilled. That is in no way to denigrate the range of different skills that are necessary across a wide range of industries. I have had a number of meetings, particularly over the last couple of weeks, in which we have talked about the care sector. Nobody would suggest that those working in care were not highly skilled, with a range of perhaps softer skills, which are absolutely necessary when caring for those with disabilities.

However, the MAC was clear when it gave its advice to us in the autumn that there was no case for schemes for particular sectors in the immigration system, other than agriculture, which has some unique characteristics. Instinctively, that has to be the right approach. Governments should avoid picking particular sectors of the economy for special treatment. That would inevitably be a highly subjective process and a major distortion of the operation of the market. It is also noticeable that the text of the recent report by the expert advisory group on migration and population established by the Scottish Government does not mention fishing once. The MAC has concluded that immigration is not the answer to depopulation in local areas—a point that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to—and that there other measures that the Scottish Government could look to.

Is the Minister telling the House, then, in all seriousness and sincerity, that she agrees with the suggestion that, instead of a sector-based scheme, we should be looking at expanding the youth mobility programme?

If the right hon. Gentleman exercises some patience, I am coming to a number of points that I would like to make.

It is crucial that the House reflects on the fact that the White Paper published in December was the start of a year-long engagement across different regions of the United Kingdom and different sectors of industry. To date, there have already been in excess of 45 engagement events or roundtables, and we have taken evidence from 650 different organisations or individuals in the first three months of this year alone. That process will continue over the course of this year, because I am conscious that we are introducing a future immigration system that will have to reflect the realities of a post-Brexit Britain and that will have to be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to address the needs of an economy that undoubtedly will change in future. It is important that we listen to the concerns raised by industry and hon. Members and get it right.

I remind the Minister of the evidence from the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation that we left with her when I and other hon. Members went to speak to her. The organisation advertised across the whole of Europe, and of the 140 people who replied only five actually came forward. That is an indication that across Europe we cannot get the people to do the jobs and so, if I can use a fishing term, we have to cast our net wider to get the right people for the job. Those are the facts of the case.

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say, we have also asked the MAC to look at a revision of the shortage occupation list. He will know that we have suggested the introduction of a separate shortage occupation list for Northern Ireland, as well as consulting on one for Wales, in addition to the separate list that we already hold for Scotland.

We need to be mindful that tying workers to particular employers or sectors can increase the risk of exploitation. I am sure hon. Members will be aware that recently four United Nations rapporteurs wrote to the Irish Government to point out that their scheme, which has been put in place in Ireland to bring in non-EU workers to work in the fishing industry there, is giving rise to forced labour and exploitation on Irish fishing vessels. There is evidence that laws on minimum wage, maximum hours and safety —the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is laughing as I say this—have been widely flouted.

On the subject of exploitation, I hope my right hon. Friend is looking forward, as I am, to her visiting my constituency in the near future to see the conditions in which a lot of non-EEA workers live and work. I would also like to bring her back to the numbers required in this case. In the horticultural sector, the Home Office has already made an allowance in the form of a pilot scheme for 2,500 people. Without getting into a debate about whether that is enough for that sector, that is twice as many as the number that we are talking about for this sector. The latest estimate I have from the Scottish White Fish Producers Association is that we currently have 800 non-EEA crew members, with 400 from the EU. After Brexit, that will be a total of 1,200, which is less than half the number that will be provided for the horticultural sector. Can such a number of visas be made available to see us through on a non-permanent basis while, at the same time, we develop skills locally?

I have listened to my hon. Friend on this subject on many an occasion. He is a forceful and passionate advocate for the industry. On the seasonal workers scheme in the edible horticultural sector, it is important that we have the opportunity to evaluate the scheme and reflect on it, but I am certainly listening closely to the calls this evening for a similar scheme for fishing.

I am conscious that I only have a few minutes left, but I would like to focus attention on the White Paper, which, as I said, we published back in December. I have already indicated that we will have a year of engagement —we are already three months in. It is important to reflect on the fact that the MAC has already suggested that we reduce the skill level from RQF 6 to RQF 3 for those seeking to come to the UK, post the introduction of the new immigration system. As I said earlier, I am not for one moment suggesting that no skill is required to work in the fishing industry. Indeed, having spoken to people in the sector in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, I am full of admiration for those who work in what are extremely difficult, challenging and sometimes downright dangerous conditions. Having given that important clarification, I would like to repeat that the MAC advised that there should be no specific route for those undertaking jobs below RQF 3. We recognise, however, that after 45 years of free movement, many businesses and employers have come to rely on a steady stream of lower skilled migrant labour. We do not wish to create a cliff edge. Accordingly, the White Paper sets out our intention that as a transitional measure we will create a temporary visa that will allow migrants from low immigration risk countries to come to the UK for up to a year to work in jobs at any skill level.

The White Paper does not represent the Government’s last word on this topic; quite the reverse. It is the start of the conversation, not the end, and we are talking to every sector of the economy across every nation of the United Kingdom and every region of England. As I said earlier, Ministers and officials have held 45 meetings with more than 650 stakeholders, and that work will continue in the coming months. I confirm that it will include representatives of the fishing sector. I also hope that it will give me the opportunity to get out and about and visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid).

I have the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), with me this evening, and Members will be aware that the Fisheries Bill is making is progress through the legislative process. With that, I conclude my remarks.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I sense that the Minister has finished her comments. I want to place on record that she said that I was laughing in relation to safety at sea.

Indeed. As a one-time member of the national council of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, that is a matter that I take seriously. Such mirth as I was displaying had more to do with the Minister’s apparent enthusiasm, rare in Government circles these days, for the reports of UN rapporteurs.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).