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Immigration Rules: Offshore Workers

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of immigration rules affecting offshore workers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. The “Saudi Arabia of wind” was how the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) described the potential of the offshore wind sector—perhaps one of his few boasts with which I agreed. One new offshore wind farm alone, Berwick Bank in the Firth of Forth, off my constituency in East Lothian, would provide enough electricity to power more households than Scotland possesses. In energy-rich Scotland, however, folk find themselves fuel poor. That, though, is a separate debate.

The opportunities of offshore wind are much more than simply lower power costs for our people. They must encompass work for individuals and communities, especially where old industries are gone or are being scaled down. It should be a renewable energy revolution, creating new types of work and jobs for young people, as well as retraining those in sectors such as fossil fuels, where a transition is as necessary for our planet as it is for our country. A just transition has been promised, and that must be more than just a glib phrase.

There are almost 50,000 offshore oil and gas workers in the UK. As their work ceases—as it will, with only the pace of it subject to debate—there is a duty to provide for them. They have given so much in recent years, often in very trying and dangerous circumstances. Of course, it is not just in offshore wind that other opportunities will now arise; there may be opportunities in carbon capture and storage or hydrogen. There are skills gaps now and no doubt there will be in future years. It is right that there should be an immigration and visa system to provide for them. Our economy and our environment demand no less.

This debate is therefore not anti-immigration. Instead, it is anti-worker exploitation. Exploitative employers must not be allowed to undermine UK employment laws and import low-paid migrant labour as a matter of course, and on terms and conditions unacceptable on the UK mainland or even in the oil and gas sector. That would be an abuse of desperate people, and a shameful sell-out of the rights of our own workers.

It is not alarmist to warn of the dangers. We have already seen the hollowing out of the UK merchant marine sector over recent years: 85% of seafarers in the UK shipping industry are non-UK nationals. More recently, we have seen the abomination of the P&O scandal—a disgrace acknowledged by this Government. This is not “stop the boats”, but save the Scottish and UK seafarers, and those classified in that category. It has already been happening in the offshore sector.

Next to the Berwick Bank offshore wind field in the Firth of Forth lies the Neart na Gaoithe field. Compounding the insult of turbines not being constructed locally was the injury to UK and Scottish seafarers who were laid off and replaced by cheap south Asian labour. Many had moved to work there from oil and gas, as a constituent of mine did, seeing it as an opportunity to be closer to home.

There is a grave risk that what happened in Neart na Gaoithe will be replicated elsewhere. UK seafarers and other offshore wind sector workers are being supplanted by foreign labour. I do not mean essential skills that can only be obtained on a global basis and are required for development and operation. Instead, it is foreign labour, exploited and working for rates of pay and under terms and conditions that would be unacceptable on the UK mainland or in the oil and gas sector.

The Neart na Gaoithe debacle came about as a result of the extension of the offshore workers exemption, which was initially the subject matter of the debate. That loophole has thankfully since ended, though too late to provide any satisfaction for those who lost their jobs. It is interesting to note, though, that RenewableUK wrote to the then immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), in August 2021 suggesting ending the waiver for migrant labour in the sector. It also stated that UK workers were losing out on contracts to construct

“UK offshore wind farms to workers from as far afield as Asia, where regulations are less robust, thus creating an unlevel playing field for British firms.”

The letter went on to narrate how UK jobs were lost as a result of a subcontractor.

That shows that immigration restrictions are not damaging to the interests of responsible UK employers or indeed any other nation’s responsible employers; they are damaging only to unscrupulous ones from anywhere. That warning was sadly ignored. A refusal to disclose the number of jobs in construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms filled by migrant labour under the initial concession compounded that problem.

Now, the 2017 offshore wind workers immigration rules concession has been replaced with the Immigration (Offshore Worker Notification and Exemption from Control (Amendment)) Regulations 2023. The regulations, though, leave a gap. It is one thing that foreign seafarers simply passing through UK waters are not covered—that is understandable and quite appropriate. However, the definition of foreign seafarers

“passing through UK waters from non-UK waters to a place in the UK or vice versa”

leaves open the opportunity for exploitation in the sector. Will the Minister undertake to address that loophole?

Moreover, as well as the numbers employed in the sector growing, the nature of the work will also develop and change. New technology such as floating offshore wind turbines allow for expansion far beyond the limits of territorial waters. Ships and support vessels will be operating further out at sea and, rather than them being serviced from onshore ports, there will be flotels, offshore living platforms and ships moored nearby for workers to live and work on. The expansion beyond UK territorial waters—the 12-mile limit that applies from the coastal shore—will also bring issues that need addressed. The issue is less serious within territorial waters, though significant risks still apply. Let me explain.

Even with the ending of the offshore workers extension, it is not difficult for employers to recruit cheaper foreign labour—it is already happening with foreign labour in the UK on visas living onshore when not working offshore. Most worrying is the potential exploitation in the sector outwith territorial waters, where many of the new wind farms will be located: beyond the 12-mile limit, yet still within the 100-mile UK exclusive economic zone. Some working there will be seafarers. Others, though, will have other skills but may operate on ships or vessels for the sector. As things currently stand, they may find themselves classified in law as seafarers or considered to be operating under international maritime laws.

We already know that issues exist with health and safety legislation as the recent Valaris 121 tragedy confirmed. When a ship or platform is not attached to a turbine, it is not UK health and safety laws that apply but international maritime law. That absurdity has seen the loss of a UK seafarer’s life in an accident only 100 miles from Aberdeen under the jurisdiction of Liberia: a country on the west coast of Africa. That is not just wrong—it is perverse. Hopefully, though, coming discussions will address that.

However, as with health and safety legislation, so with employment legislation, whereby the national minimum wage does not apply for those operating outwith territorial waters yet still doing so within the UK’s exclusive economic zone. Of course, some responsible employers even apply the living wage across their supply chain, although monitoring and enforcement of it can be problematic. Surely, though, employment legislation that applies in the UK should extend to this sector? After all, steps were rightly taken to extend such protections to the oil and gas sector when it first took off.

As well as ensuring that existing UK workers’ rights are protected in the new sector, there needs to be action so that immigration laws apply to the sector. Recently published Government guidance to immigration staff on incoming labour to the UK only refers to “continental shelf workers”. As with the health and safety situation, there is a failure to provide for the new offshore wind sector. The definition of a continental shelf worker comes from the Petroleum Act 1998 and relates to those operating in the oil and gas sector. To be fair, when that legislation was written, the technology for offshore wind, let alone for floating offshore wind, had not even been thought about. As a result, there is no guidance that applies for immigration officials when labour is recruited for the offshore wind sector. That appears to be an oversight, even if there is an understandable reason for the failure.

However, it must be noted that section 87 of the Energy Act 2004 applies civil law to renewable energy installations. That specifically includes those outwith the 12-mile territorial limit and within the exclusive economic zone. No doubt that was done to protect the interests of the corporations involved in the offshore sector. They need to be able to litigate for damages, to enforce contracts, and to preserve their proprietorial and economic rights. I accept that recourse to UK courts and the imposition of UK laws is sensible and required. The rule of law is fundamental for commerce and trade. But the rule of law is equally necessary in civil society and for our citizens as much as for our corporations. Extending coverage of existing laws and providing recourse to courts should therefore apply to workers’ rights and safety, just as it does for economic development and corporate profits. Rights applied in the oil and gas sector must be replicated in the offshore wind sector, and agreements between trade unions and employers should similarly apply.

The danger is that in order to maximise profits unscrupulous employers will seek to import foreign labour, who will work under terms and conditions that we as a country would not tolerate, either on our land or in the oil and gas sector. Those working on ships or based in flotels or other vessels in the exclusive economic zone will be denied those rights. As things stand, employers will not even have to go through the relatively minor hoops and hurdles that apply for migrants working within the territorial limit.

As I said at the outset, this speech is not anti-immigration; Scotland requires new people. This speech is anti-exploitation of workers, protecting those entitled to a just transition and others who are simply seeking a start in the natural bounty that is off our shores. Also, though, it is about protecting workers from abroad who are so desperate for work that they are prepared to accept terms and conditions of employment that we already consider unacceptable on our land and in other sectors.

We must ensure that what happened in Neart na Gaoithe or with P&O, which was even worse, is not repeated. This issue is about the protection of workers in our growing offshore wind sector, whether they are from this country or from abroad but working here. There is ample opportunity to do both, because even after providing employment for all the current oil and gas workers, as well as creating new jobs for others of all ages, there will still be a need to bring in migrants to work. However, that should happen where skills are missing or labour is just not to be found. It should be about economic necessity, not the circumvention of hard-won and vital individual and collective rights. Equally, as we have heard from RenewableUK, this is about protecting responsible employers from those who are unscrupulous. The rights and laws that we have onshore, which have also operated in the oil and gas sector, must be extended to the offshore sector within and without territorial waters.

Will the Minister ensure that UK immigration rules applying to the offshore sector secure the protection of UK workers by basing this on specific need where skills shortages have been identified? Moreover, will he ensure that they are temporary regulations, and subject to regular oversight and transparency? Finally, will he require employers of migrant labour to adhere to the UK employment laws and the national minimum wage that we expect to be enforced on the UK mainland, on our islands, and in our oil and gas sector?

Before I call the hon. Gentleman, I need to know that both the mover of the motion and the Minister are happy that he should make a short speech. Is that the case?

Thank you very much, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) not just for allowing me the opportunity to speak briefly, but for securing this incredibly important debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the scandal of P&O Ferries sacking 800 British seafarers a little over a year ago. The anniversary of that terrible event in British maritime history and industrial relations was on 17 March. That was the 12-month anniversary of 800 people being sacked and thrown on the scrapheap over a Zoom call. It was utterly deplorable. I am afraid that the Seafarers’ Wages Act 2023 that the Government brought forward with a view to sorting out that travesty simply does not cut the mustard. The reality is that there is still a legislative lacuna and the Act that was brought forward to sort it out simply does not do the trick.

I mention the P&O issue because it is incredibly relevant to this. It is clear that we need a smarter immigration system, and we desperately need Government investment to retrain offshore workers. We also need investment from the private sector in the maritime industry, but the Government have to help. They have to put their hands in their pocket and put up some moneys to retrain people and skill them up to work in the offshore sector. Regrettably, they have not done that.

I have lost count of the number of times I have spoken with Immigration Ministers over recent years and they have assured me—privately, very often—that they intend to address the issue of continually extending the regulations to, in effect, allow foreign workers to come into this country, work in the offshore sector and, frankly, work for an awful lot less than they would be expected to earn if they were British seafarers.

I ask the Minister: what do we need? By the way, I thank him for allowing me to contribute briefly to the debate. What we need is sectoral collective bargaining in the offshore wind sector. That would prevent the undercutting of pay and conditions in this growing industry. There are huge opportunities for people who go to school in the constituency of the hon. Member for East Lothian and, indeed, in mine. Kids could look forward to prosperous, good careers working in the offshore sector, but we need such a collective bargaining agreement to make that happen.

By the way, I have been involved in this stuff for many years now, and any suggestion that this would be challenged and is impossible because the UN convention on the law of the sea would prevent such a collective bargaining agreement is just utter nonsense. That is simply not right. If the Minister is about to be briefed by civil servants saying, “Well, there’s a problem with that, because the UN convention on the law of the sea prevents such collective bargaining agreements”, that is simply not right. There is nothing in international law or, indeed, domestic law that says that that would be an issue. I pray that the Government get a grip on the situation. They should not continually extend the regulations to allow offshore workers to come in and do these jobs. I do not think that it is a problem—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is eating into valuable time. He is probably right that we should allow the Minister to respond to this debate now.

I am very grateful to you, Sir Christopher. Very briefly, the Government need to do much more to address this issue. It has continued for long enough. They need to get a grip.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) on successfully securing this afternoon’s debate.

I shall start by saying that I appear in place of the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who, unfortunately, cannot be here this afternoon. He takes a close interest in this debate and will, I know, be reading it afterwards. Having that in mind, I hope that Members will forgive me if there are occasions when my detailed knowledge is not as acute as that of my right hon. Friend.

Let me address one or two of the points that the hon. Member for East Lothian made at the start of his speech about the United Kingdom’s aspirations around renewable energy and the progress that we have made in that area. Members will be aware that, back in 2012—just 11 years ago—43% of this country’s electricity generation was from coal-fired power stations, the most polluting form of power generation. Last year, it was just 1.5%, which is a fantastic reduction. If other countries emulated our example, things would be a lot better.

Last year, 48.5% of our electricity generation came from zero-carbon sources. In the first quarter of 2023, wind energy generated 32% of our electricity. It was the largest single contributor to electricity generation. All of us can be very proud of the enormous progress made by the United Kingdom in generating non-polluting forms of electricity, which means that we do not have to import gas or oil from sometimes unreliable countries. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the phenomenal progress made by the United Kingdom.

Let me turn now to the topic of the debate, which is the immigration rules affecting offshore workers. I will be completely clear with Members that the immigration rules applying to those people working in our territorial waters are precisely the same now as those applying to people working on land. We made that expressly clear through section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which, I am glad to say, came into force in April—in my previous incarnation, I was the Minister for that Bill. Section 43 of the Act makes it absolutely clear that foreign nationals working in our territorial waters need our permission to do so—they need a visa in exactly the same way as foreign nationals working on our land do. That has been made absolutely clear now in legislation.

As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, there have in the past been particular exemptions for offshore wind farm workers. I know that he has been an extremely eloquent and I might even say persistent advocate on that point, and, as he said in his speech, that exemption was discontinued relatively recently. His representations over a period of months, or probably even years, have contributed to the thinking on that topic.

On the matter of skilled worker visas, which apply both on land and in our territorial waters, there are some fairly clear rules around salary thresholds, English language requirements and the level of skill that a worker must have. The Government are advised on that, of course, by the Migration Advisory Committee. It is fair to say that the immigration figures that came out a week or two ago were higher than the Government wished in a number of categories, including skilled workers. The Government’s policy is to try to ensure that jobs are filled first by United Kingdom residents. We have plenty of people here who are economically inactive—many are claiming benefits—and we would like to see them employed first in our economy, whether onshore or offshore. I assure hon. Members that we want more UK resident workers to fill vacancies, as opposed to immigration filling them, whether onshore or offshore. On that point, the hon. Member for East Lothian and His Majesty’s Government are as one. Of course, those rules—the salary thresholds and so on—are kept continuously under consideration.

I will first address the point about territorial waters, and then I will talk about the exclusive economic zone. Often, the people in those waters are transiting, working in those waters or stopping off at a UK port in the course of making a passage from one place to another, so the rules governing people in transiting ships of different kinds necessarily need more latitude than those we apply to people working on terra firma. That is why there is a little more latitude in those cases, but it is not without limitation, and we do not want it to be abused. If there are points of detail that need fine-tuning, the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark, is always willing to engage in dialogue to ensure the rules are not in any way being misused. I am not aware of any evidence that they are, but if the hon. Member for East Lothian has any points about the details of that, I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark will be happy to enter into dialogue about that.

The exclusive economic zone is the area of sea outside territorial waters—more than 12 miles from the high water mark, but less than 100 miles from the coast. International law confers upon it particular economic rights in relation to what is found under the sea—for example, oil in the North sea—but it does not confer a power of sovereignty over what happens on the surface. That therefore severely limits—indeed, largely excludes—our ability to impose economic or labour market regulation on activity in the exclusive economic zone outside territorial waters.

A point was made about sectoral collective bargaining. I suspect that falls under the policy ambit of another Department—probably the Department for Business and Trade—so I do not wish to trespass on its territory, save to say that, regardless of the technicalities in international law, the Government are not generally huge fans of imposing collective bargaining on particular bits of industry. We much prefer individual employers to offer terms that are attractive to their employees. Of course, workforces are free to unionise if they wish to do so, but imposing sectoral collective bargaining is reminiscent of the 1970s. I am not sure the Government would wish to go in that direction, but I note the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) in that regard.

I hope I have addressed the points that have been raised. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian once again, not just on securing this debate, but on his representations on ending the exemption in relation to offshore windfarm working. They have been not only listened to but acted upon.

Question put and agreed to.