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Fishing Industry: Visas for Foreign Workers

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 20 April 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Office if she will make a statement on visas for foreign workers taking employment in the fishing industry.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for this question. I know this is a topic of significant interest to many in the House. Ordinarily, the Immigration Minister would respond, but he is on an operational visit this morning.

It has been the long-standing position of this and previous Governments that foreign nationals coming to work in the UK, be that on land or on our waters, should comply with the immigration system when doing so. I do not believe that that is controversial, and the fishing industry is no exception to that. Section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 clarifies the Government’s policy position to date: that foreign nationals working in our waters need permission to do so. It does not introduce a new policy. Acknowledging that many in the industry have been incorrectly relying on transit visas rather than work visas to crew their boats, the Government delayed the implementation of section 43 for six months from October 2022 to allow time for the industry to regularise the position of its workers. However, we have decided not to delay implementation any further.

We are aware of the problems that the industry is having in relation to access to labour, and we are fully cognisant of the important contribution that it makes to the economy, particularly in smaller, rural and coastal areas. There are routes in the immigration system that are available for the fishing industry to use. In recognition of the fact that the industry has not been a wide user of the immigration system to date, we will make a generous offer, going over and above what is usually available to employers, to assist it. We are currently finalising the details of our offer of support as a matter of urgency. Once it is ready, my Home Office colleagues will ensure that it is communicated to the industry and to interested Members of the House.

I have to say that fishermen listening to that will have seen it not so much as an answer but as an insult. As you will know, Mr Speaker, this issue has been raised on many occasions in the House. The fishing industry has for years struggled to source the labour that it needs to function properly, and has looked beyond these shores to meet its needs.

Those in the fishing industry have worked hard to construct a scheme that would meet their needs, and its details—written by the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance—have been under consideration by the Home Office. It is, to all intents and purposes, identical to schemes made available to workers in aquaculture and the offshore renewables industry. On Thursday last week, however, the Home Office announced that there would be no such scheme for the fishing industry and, furthermore, that the temporary arrangements that have been in place for the fishing industry would be ended with immediate effect.

My first ask of the Minister is this: will the Home Secretary or the Immigration Minister agree to meet me, with a delegation of fishermen’s organisations and Members from all parties, to discuss the details of this? We need answers from the Home Secretary. Why is the fishing industry not allowed the same opportunities given to people working in aquaculture and offshore renewables? Why was no grace period allowed for fishermen to make alternative arrangements?

The people who will be most affected are those fishing in inshore waters using both fixed and mobile gear. If they are to go to sea at all, it will have to be further out, which could bring them into conflict with other sectors that are already fishing there, and will inevitably compromise safety in an industry that is already acknowledged as one of the most dangerous. The excluded areas are very widely drawn and, in Orkney, include uninhabited islands, some of which are 90 miles from the Orkney mainland, making a difficult situation catastrophic. One Shetland fisherman told me last week that he currently works inside the 12-mile limit because he has quota only for haddock. If he has to fish outside the 12-mile limit, he will catch not just haddock but ling and saithe, for which he has no quota and which he is not even allowed to discard. What would the Minister have him do?

Those fishermen have done everything that every Minister in every Government have asked of them. They have worked hard, saved and invested, but they are now left facing ruin. This is a betrayal on the scale that we saw when Ted Heath said that our fishermen were expendable.

I do not accept that this is a betrayal of the industry. There has been much discussion in this area, and a generous package is imminent to bring the fishing industry in line with other industries. Allusions to the agriculture industry—a seasonal, low-skilled industry—are not apposite because fishermen are highly skilled and should apply through the usual routes. The wind farm system is closed, so it is not right to draw a comparison there either. The right hon. Gentleman asks to meet the Home Secretary or the Immigration Minister. I can put that request to the Minister this afternoon, and I hope that it will be agreed.

I am not crying wolf when I say that this is really putting the scampi industry at risk. Whitby Seafoods has substantial investment in Whitby, as well as in Kilkeel, near the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Those 500 jobs would be at risk without the supply of scampi. That can be done only using crew who are, in the main, from the Philippines. I hope that this Minister or the Immigration Minister will join me in Kilkeel to see how the crew of Filipinos work together as a team, conversing in their own language. On safety, we need to come up with a solution to the language situation so that we can keep that fish coming in, keep those jobs onshore, and keep Whitby scampi on our pub restaurant menus.

I know that my right hon. Friend has been very keen in his work in this area, and he always supports the workers in his constituency and the wider industry. The Government have already delayed the implementation of section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. It is only right that when this House passes legislation, we expect it to be implemented, and there has already been a delay once.

In relation to the particular point that my right hon. Friend made, I am sure the Immigration Minister will want to talk to him and perhaps visit. I cannot commit him to too many visits, but I will try when I see him this afternoon. This is an important industry, but it is only right that these systems are brought into line with those that everybody else has to abide by. The language provisions are there for important reasons—for the safety of those workers. There has to be a proper system for English language attainment, as with every other industry in this country; there should be no exceptions.

Labour recognises the vital role that the fishing industry plays in securing the food that we all rely on. That is why it is so important that our immigration system is designed alongside the agricultural sector with the specific sector bodies representing its constituent parts. The announcement this week is a prime example of the Government’s points-based system not working as it should. Too many industries rely on immigration to fill skills gaps, but we cannot just turn off the tap. If we want to back British industries to buy and sell more in Britain, they need the workforce to do it.

Under the Conservatives, the immigration system exists entirely in isolation from long-term plans for the labour market. Action in both areas is far too weak. On immigration, the Home Secretary claims to want to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, in disagreement with the Prime Minister, while net migration exceeds 500,000. On the labour market, the Chancellor speaks of tackling economic inactivity, despite soaring levels of people off work due to long-term illness. There is no proper interaction between these two areas. The consequence is no long-term plan to balance sector-specific labour shortages with immigration rules, and instead, panicked fixes developed on an ad hoc basis. A concession is in place for offshore wind and not for fishing. Thousands of visas are released for HGV drivers but not for the meat industry. If those differences were justified by evidence, one might have sympathy, but sectors such as the fishing industry would be forgiven for thinking the Government are just making it up as they go along.

The Labour party supports the principle of a points-based system, but we will improve the current system to make sure it is fair, firm and well managed. We will balance the requirements of businesses and public services with the need to provide the right levels of training and support for home-grown talent, while recognising the critical role that immigration can play and ensuring that we treat those migrant workers with the dignity and respect they deserve. This year, the Labour party is undertaking a review of the points-based system, but unlike the Government, we are engaging in a dialogue with businesses, trade unions and communities, so that the system works for all.

The fishing industry will be keenly watching this, and I want to ask the Minister three quick questions. What are the Government doing to help the fishing industry transition? What consultation have the Government had with the fishing industry on these changes, and how have they adopted their approach as a result? What reforms are they considering to the points-based system to ensure that businesses train up home-grown talent in exchange for recruiting from overseas, so that the labour force is resilient? I hope the Minister can answer those questions.

The hon. Lady mentioned a few areas. The offshore wind concession has now closed, so that is no longer of any relevance. It is not accepted that insufficient work has been done in this area. We have a very well-honed skilled workers programme, which has been developed after much work and consultation, and it is not accepted that this is a panicked fix. It is a typical Labour suggestion that something is panicky if it has been delayed for six months—that is hardly a panicky quick fix. This is calculated, bringing this industry into line with everybody else. There needs to be a level playing field.

The Government are doing much in relation to transition. The hon. Lady asked what provision there will be. If she was listening earlier, she will have heard me mention that there is going to be a detailed, generous package, which will be announced imminently, to allow the fishing industry, which has taken time to get away from this historical practice, to come into line. There will be generous support, and it will be announced imminently.

The UK Government’s decision to not create a bespoke visa scheme for the fishing industry has created huge challenges for the sector, with some crew members forced to stop working and some boats unable even to go out to sea. The chaos caused by the Home Office announcement that a concession would not be provided to the fishing industry for foreign crew working within 12 nautical miles prevented workers on transit visas from going on to fish in international waters. What will the Minister do to address the fact that overnight, fishermen and businesses found themselves in legal limbo, with no time to make preparations to continue working? It makes no sense for concessions to be provided for workers in the aquaculture and offshore renewables sectors, but not the fishing sector.

Around one fifth of fishermen working in Scotland come from outside the European economic area and rely on transit visas to work. How does the Minister respond to concerns that it will be very difficult to find enough crew to meet demand, and what reassurances can she give to the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, which has raised serious concerns about the Government’s willingness to sacrifice Scotland’s fishing industry—concerns echoed by the Scottish Government, who have been similarly ignored? That threatens this sector, which is so important to Scotland and to our rural and island communities.

The Government accept that there are special requirements in relation to fishing, which is why these fishermen are skilled workers, and they should be applying through the skilled worker scheme. It is not accepted that the industry has been left in limbo: it has been allowed a six-month delay, with plans for generous support that will be announced imminently.

Again, comparisons with the agricultural industry are false, because we have seasonal, low-skilled workers in that industry for a good reason, and they have a different scheme. For fishermen, it is all year round, and these are highly skilled workers. It does the industry a disservice to say that they should be treated in a similar, seasonal, once-a-year or twice-a-year way. The industry needs to be able to accept these changes, which have been passed by the Government in this House. There will be a generous package of support to assist it so that it will no longer be in limbo—as the hon. Lady says—but will be able to plan to be treated in the same way as the rest of the UK.

The Home Office’s treatment of sectors employing large numbers of migrant workers has been hapless for years, so can I press the Minister: by when will we see the generous offer that she has talked about today?

I do not accept that the system has been dealt with by the Government in a haphazard or hapless way. There has been a lot of consultation with the industry, and there has been the significant delay that I mentioned. The industry has been given time. Of course, the Government are very sympathetic to every industry across this great nation of ours. However, we do now need to move on with the will of Parliament and make sure that this industry goes along with what everybody else has to use—the skilled worker route. That is what we are going to do, but there will be generous support for employers to make sure they are able to make those changes.

Be in no doubt, Minister: this is a betrayal of our inshore fleet. It is particularly galling that it comes just 24 hours after the Tories demanded that the Scottish Government listen to, and consult further with, our fishing communities over highly protected marine areas, which I am delighted to say they have committed to do. That the Tories have become so callously deaf to the pleas of those same fishing communities, who have made the reasonable request that they be treated no differently from other sectors, is a betrayal, and will be seen as political opportunism of the worst kind. Can the Minister not see and understand that?

I can understand, on behalf of the Government, the concerns about this area. However, I think the hon. Member does himself a disservice with the emotive language he uses. He says that we are callously deaf, but we have delayed on special grounds for six months and are bringing in a supportive and very generous package that will be announced imminently. The rhetoric therefore does not ring true; I know that sometimes, rhetoric is used to try to divide us in this nation, but I do not accept that that is the right way forward. A generous package of support will be announced imminently.

The plight of the fishing industry is closely allied to hospitality and tourism in coastal areas and other parts of the United Kingdom, which face a similar crisis. Some 63% of the hospitality and tourism businesses in my community are operating below capacity, because of a lack of staff. The Minister’s Department has been in discussions with me and the tourism industry about a youth mobility visa scheme with France, Spain, Poland and other countries. Can she give me an update or at least allow a meeting between me, the tourism industry and Ministers to see how they are getting on with bilateral negotiations over youth mobility visas to solve this problem?

The Government are fully aware of shortages in all sorts of industries in the country, which is why we want to get more British people back working, particularly the over-50s, and there have been a lot of schemes on that. The Government are working hard, and there will be a package of support to enable employers to implement this measure, so that the fishing industry is the same as every other industry. We are cognisant of differences—geographical and otherwise—and the idea is that the will of this House to have a skilled worker scheme is brought into play.

The Minister may not be aware that the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation was literally the only part, across the entirety of Scottish civic society, that openly supported Brexit. It continued to support the Government’s approach for a number of years. Even it now says that it has gone badly wrong. If the only cheerleaders that Brexit ever had in Scotland are telling the Minister that they have been sold a pig in a poke, is it any wonder that as well as resoundingly rejecting her party and her Brexit, the vast majority of people in Scotland now believe that her Union’s days are severely numbered?

It is unfortunate when the nationalists try to bring everything down to Brexit or independence. This is a whole of the United Kingdom system. We have a skilled worker programme, and fishermen will need to apply. There will be generous support. Despite the six-month delay, we need to give further assistance to the industry, and we will announce a generous package imminently.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has put his finger on it. Today I have spoken to Mr William Calder, who runs Scrabster Seafoods, a highly successful firm in Caithness. William said to me that if the skippers cannot get the crew for the boats, the boats do not go to sea, and if the boats do not go to sea, they do not catch the fish. That means he may not have the fish he needs. He employs people in vital jobs in Caithness. The Government have to ask themselves one simple question: are they about business and nurturing business, or not?

Of course the Government are about nurturing business, but this is about assisting industries that have been using the wrong visa for many years to come into line with the rest of the country. The fishermen should be employed through the skilled worker visa. This Government are about economics and industry, and this is about encouraging the sector with generous support to recruit local people where possible, rather than people from abroad who may not have the language skills needed to promote their safety. That is why the English language is so very important in the visa system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) points out the problems caused for his community if the fish are not landed. If that happens, there is no fish and no seafood to process. That feeds into communities such as mine, which may not have a food processing industry or fishermen, but do have a massive hospitality industry that is dependent on that food. Can the Government not see that by taking these steps, they are failing the entire economy and the business they claim to support?

With respect, it is not failing the economy to demand that one industry does, with extra help, what everybody else does. There will be extra financial support for employers to apply through the skilled worker scheme. There has been a six-month delay. There will be support for employers to apply through the route that they should use. This practice needs, after a six-month delay, to be brought to an end, and fishing industry employers need to recruit locally if possible and use the visa system that exists.

The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance has asked for an extension for fishermen’s safety. They need to be trained to the appropriate English language standard. In the meeting that we had with the Minister for Immigration in January, the fishing organisations outlined how they were going to achieve that goal through a college in Sri Lanka that could train the fishermen and fisherwomen up to a standard of the English language that enables them to come here and fit into the scheme. We had some indication from the Immigration Minister that he was sympathetic to that.

I represent Portavogie in my constituency of Strangford and, because the other MP does not attend this place, I ultimately represent Ardglass and Kilkeel on fishing as well. It is imperative to have a managed, safe transition, and time is needed to deliver that. Analysis shows that 600 jobs could be lost. I say to the Minister again very respectfully—the Minister knows that I am always respectful to her, as I am to every person in this Chamber—that, for the communities that will be impacted, a further grace period is needed to enable the fishing sector to thrive and create jobs and opportunity. We need 12 months to make that happen, so that people can learn the English language and come here and do the jobs.

I know the hon. Member has worked hard on this area. However, there has already been a six-month delay. The point about the English language is crucial. The English language requirement is fundamental to the successful integration into British society of workers coming from abroad. That is for many reasons: it is not just for integration, but to keep them safe. The level is B1 English, which is lower intermediate, and migrants do need to understand that. I am interested in the work that he has been watching in Sri Lanka, but there has already been a six-month delay. We need to bring this practice to an end, and applicants need to go through the skilled worker route.