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European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Work in Fishing Convention) Order 2018

Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2018

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Work in Fishing Convention) Order 2018.

My Lords, I ask that this order, which was laid before the House on 22 February 2018, be considered. This draft order would give the Government the powers to implement the Work in Fishing Convention into UK law by declaring that this 2007 convention, ILO Convention No. 188, is to be regarded as an EU treaty as defined in Section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. As a result, the provisions of the 1972 Act would apply in relation to the convention and could then be used to implement the convention. The order does not in itself implement it; that will require new and amending statutory instruments, which will be laid later this year, if this order is approved, under negative procedure.

So what is the Work in Fishing Convention? It was adopted in Geneva by the International Labour Organization—the ILO—on 14 June 2007 and entered into force internationally on 16 November 2017. It entitles all fishermen to written terms and conditions of employment, decent accommodation and food, medical care, regulated working time, repatriation, social protection and health and safety on board. It also provides minimum standards relating to recruitment and placement. Sadly, in too many cases, as the Committee may be aware from reports in the press during the last year or so, such basic requirements are not always met.

The convention provides global minimum standards for decent work and a framework which enables both flag states and port states to enforce them. The UK should therefore ratify the convention to tackle the fortunately rare cases of labour exploitation in the UK industry and to give the Maritime and Coastguard Agency—the MCA—the tools to enforce the same standards on non-UK fishing vessels visiting UK ports. At a domestic level, it will also help to further safety.

Fishing remains the most dangerous industry in the UK and the Government are committed to making it safer. The MCA works with the Fishing Industry Safety Group to improve fishing vessel safety. One issue which has hindered progress is that much of the UK legislation covering fishermen’s health and safety, and living and working conditions, applies only to employed fishermen when a large proportion of the UK fleet is manned by self-employed share fishermen. The Government consider that the implementation of the convention into UK law is an important step forward in the development of health and safety policy for the fishing industry, as it provides protection for all fishermen regardless of their employment status.

ILO conventions must be ratified as a whole. UK legislation is already compliant with parts of the convention, while the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 provides the necessary powers to implement other parts of it. However, some provisions of the convention cannot be implemented under that Act. This order will allow us to use the powers contained in the European Communities Act 1972 to give effect to those provisions.

The MCA conducted a public consultation on proposals to implement the convention between November 2017 and January 2018. These proposals were developed through extensive discussion with industry representatives. Consultation responses generally supported implementation in principle but raised some concerns about the practical implications. That is why the MCA is considering these responses and will work with industry representatives to mitigate any impact before implementing regulations are made.

I should like to make clear the thinking behind having this choice of instrument, as opposed to new primary legislation. The convention is ancillary to the EU treaties because it contains some matters that lie within the competence of the European Union, although the EU is not itself able to be party to the convention. Other matters are ancillary to the transport and employment provisions of the EU treaties, in particular the promotion of social protection and the raising of the standard of living and employment of fishermen. As an EU Council decision was passed authorising ratification by EU member states, a directive has been adopted on the European social partners’ agreement on the convention; and, as it is not possible to ratify conventions piecemeal, it is appropriate that the convention is deemed to be ancillary to the treaty. I hope the Committee followed all of that.

There is also precedent. The convention is a sister convention to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. The MLC, widely regarded as a bill of rights for seafarers, was implemented into UK law in 2014. This House approved the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Maritime Labour Convention) Order 2009 to use the powers in the European Communities Act to implement the MLC into UK law. As this convention is intended to provide similar protections for fishermen as the MLC did for merchant seafarers, it is appropriate that the same method be used to provide powers to implement the convention.

I therefore propose that this order be made under Section 1(3) of the European Communities Act 1972 in order to use the powers in Section 2(2) of that Act to facilitate the implementation of those provisions of the convention that are not either already implemented into UK law or capable of being implemented using existing powers, thus enabling the United Kingdom in meeting its international obligations and improving working conditions within the fishing industry.

The draft order before the Committee is intended to ensure that the Government have the powers to fully implement the convention into law to improve the health, safety and well-being of all fishermen in the UK. It is fully supported by the UK social partners and by the Government. I beg to move.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a board member of the Marine Management Organisation.

I thank the Minister for her explanation but I still do not get how we will use this legislation. This specifically is not EU legislation. The fact that this process might have been used before should not act as a precedent for repeating something that is wrong. None of the areas covered by this—minimum age and some on the medical side—are exclusively EU competencies. There is a number of EU competencies which are exclusive under the common fisheries policy, but these are not them. This is the wrong instrument with which to effect these measures and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments.

As this has an EU context, I am particularly interested in whether all 28 EU member states are signatories to the convention and whether there has been a pan-European signing-up to it.

I welcome the convention. The Minister made the valid point that the order applies to foreign vessels that might come into UK ports and enables us to enforce this. The vast majority of vessels will be from either EEA or EU member states and I would be surprised if they were not meeting the terms of the convention. However, it is an excellent backstop.

It is interesting that the Minister used exclusively the term fishermen whereas the convention refers to fishers. Certainly in North America, “fishers” is the English word that is always used in this context. Will the Government in future always use the term fishers rather than fishermen when they refer to this industry and its participants? Fisherman is an ancient term, it is gender-specific and inappropriate to this industry in the 21st century. I do not accuse the Minister of being inappropriate while she was making her explanation because that has been the way in which we do it in this country, but it is time for change.

My Lords, perhaps I might raise a query. I thank the Minister for introducing the convention order. My query is on the medical aspect that was picked up. Paragraph 4.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to ILO 188 and “medical care”, but paragraph 4.5 refers to “shared competence”. It then goes on to describe,

“medical treatment on board vessels”.

Obviously the vessels will vary in size. Can we be given any clarification on what is expected in the difference between medical care and medical treatment on board vessels?

My Lords, I follow my noble friend Lord Teverson by saying that we support the basic aims of ILO 188, but I have some questions for the Minister. I start with a really easy one. Paragraph 3.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum on the territorial application says,

“this instrument includes Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

What happened to Wales and to England? It then says that,

“it is not a financial instrument that relates exclusively to England, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

What happened to Scotland then? I find that particular paragraph confusing.

This whole process has been very slow. ILO 188 was laid before Parliament in 2008. The Government say they now hope to rectify this as soon as possible. Given that we are a decade on, when will that be? Is that what the Minister was referring to when she said that the Government hope to take further action by later this year? Do we have any clarity as to exactly what that phrase means?

The Government are making this order under the European Communities Act 1972 to facilitate the implementation of ILO 188. My noble friend drew attention to the appropriateness, or not, of using this method, but the Government have chosen to do it by that system. It raises a wry smile, of course, at this stage of our attempts to leave the EU, but nevertheless that is the Government’s chosen path. One has to ask: what would be the implications of Brexit on how we implement this? There are obviously issues of shared competence here. It is not that the EU has remained uninterested in this. The Council exhorted member states to ratify it by the end of 2012. We are clearly lagging behind that timescale, but at least the work is now being done. One applauds that.

I realise that this is a mechanism for further implementation, but the impact statements say that there will be “no impact on business” and that it,

“does not apply to activities that are undertaken by small businesses”.

What we are doing by agreeing to this is unlocking the door to rules and regulations that will surely apply to small businesses. I am confused by the lack of an impact assessment and by the statements on the lack of impact on business. Are the Government saying that there is no impact because we do all this anyway? I thought that might be the answer, but in fact the Minister just stood up and said that very often these rules are not observed. We need to receive an explanation to find out exactly why the Government feel that an impact assessment is not necessary.

Finally, I refer to regulated working time, to which the Minister referred earlier. She pinpointed the fact that these standards often are not met. I wonder what the Government have in mind to improve conditions in relation to regulated working time.

My Lords, I am a late draftee to this Committee and already I feel out of my depth—I tend to feel out of my depth in three feet of sea-water, but I will get accustomed to the situation, I am quite sure. I understand that this may well be the Minister’s last speech, as she is leaving the Front Bench. Of course, we all wish her well. I do not have the slightest doubt that she will, with her usual skill, answer the challenging questions that have already been presented to the Committee, and I can reassure her that I do not have a challenging question.

Although I was born in south Wales, I was brought up 14 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, so of course we lived by the works of Shakespeare. I remember when I played the part of Orlando, who was proud enough to boast,

“yet am I inland bred. And know some nurture”.

In other words, he was born in the Midlands, a long way from the sea, and was therefore a polite, dutiful citizen and well respected; and heaven help those people who went anywhere near where rougher trades were practised—for which I have no doubt fishers qualified.

I very much enjoyed the point that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, made, and I am sure that the Minister will respect it. After all, I thought it had a biblical origin—“ye shall be fishers of men”, not “fishermen”. So the word has a tradition to it, and I am sure the Minister will accept that point.

I also recognise the obvious fact that the issue of small businesses is bound to apply as far as fishing is concerned. My own perspective on fishing was that it used very small vessels indeed, until eventually, by some mischance, I arrived in Ullapool—actually, it was deliberate: we enjoyed Ullapool very much. The amount of fish being landed there and the activities of the trawlers were enormously impressive. However, what seems be going on is the absolute reversal of 16th-century trade patterns. Whereas Drake went to the Spanish Main and brought home Spanish treasure, it looked to me as though the great trucks came from Spain to take Scottish treasure—the catches brought in by the local trawlers—back to Spain.

Let me assure the Committee that we are in favour of this instrument. We recognise the point that it is not an EU document. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister will explain why we continue to use this framework and why it will stand us in good stead. It needs to, because there is no doubt that in recent years there has been growing anxiety about the conditions in which men—it is almost universally men—are employed in the fishing fleet. Many are in ships in which conditions can be quite deplorable.

A recent development is the recognition of people trafficking. I do not know how far back it goes, but I can certainly recall a time when the concept of trafficking did not apply to people who worked on British fishing vessels. The trafficking that has been exposed must be a shock to us all, and it involves people from a very long way away indeed—Sri Lanka is very far away for a fisher involved in work on a British vessel to claim to be in home waters, and certainly he did not arrive on that vessel when it was directly off the coast of Sri Lanka. But it is an indication of the extent to which people trafficking is an increasing problem. We know it most acutely, of course, in the migration in the Mediterranean, but it is not just there that it is happening: ask the Australians about the problems in their part of the world.

We are aware of the fact that there are cases of British vessels being involved with people who look as though they have appeared in the crew not through orthodox recruitment but through trafficking, where it is the intermediaries who make all the money out of them. Often, therefore, they work in appalling conditions on vessels, and they have great difficulty working out any strategy for escape. It is difficult to know what the correct word for “work” is if you have no escape from it and no control at all over conditions—I suggest that it is some form of modern slavery. That is the seriousness with which we should address this issue today. I am very glad, therefore, that both in the other place and here my party is fully behind these steps to improve the situation—and not before time.

I am interested in the question of enforcement measures, and perhaps the Minister might dwell a little on these. If the legislation is not directly anyone’s, the problem is who then takes responsibility for the effective policing and operation of these areas. I am sure that the Minister has a clear answer to that question.

This may be a brief document and a brief debate, but it is about the most serious of issues. We certainly want our fishing industry to be clear of the malpractices that have been identified here. Of course, it may be that it is always foreign vessels identified in British waters that are involved, but we cannot be too careful. We need the response of international action because, of all industries, fishing is so obviously an international practice for so many—fishers do not just stay in home waters.

The other dimension is obvious as well. There is no industry with a greater casualty risk than the fishing industry. Only two days ago, I was talking to a steeplejack—retired, I hasten to add. He had been in the employ of the Church Commissioners and had spent all his working life working on contracts for English cathedrals. What a joy that must have been in so many ways, and he was a wonderfully enlightened man. When I questioned him about the risks involved in his industry, he said, “We don’t take risks; we’re professional in what we do and accidents are few and far between”. Would that that were entirely true of our fishing industry also.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for his kind words. Unless there is an Urgent Question, which can easily happen, this probably will be the last time I stand up from the Front Bench. But that is probably just as well, because when I finish replying to this I will probably get the sack anyway—I have to say that I have found it quite a difficult order to understand. However, I thank everybody for their words and I will try to answer all the questions.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned the words “fishermen” and “fishers”. Funnily enough, I brought that up when I was given my brief. It turns out that, even though in academic circles “fishers” is the term it is thought should be used, apparently the industry particularly said that its members still want to be known as fishermen. That is why we are referring to “fishermen”, but it will be interesting, as time goes on, to see whether that does indeed change.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also asked why we are implementing the convention in this way, as it has nothing to do with the EU. Some aspects of the convention come exclusively within EU competence, but an EU directive that comes into force later in 2019 requires the implementation of the social partners agreement, which incorporates the provisions of the convention only for employed fishermen. Therefore, the convention will form part of EU law and Section 2(2) is appropriate for that reason. That is why we are doing it in this way.

The noble Lord also wanted to know how many states had signed up to the convention so far. The answer is three of the 28.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, talked about impact assessments. A full impact assessment has been done on the SIs that have been introduced to implement ILO 188 and this has been subject to public consultation. The noble Baroness also talked about the speed of implementation and asked why it has taken so long. The measure was originally laid before Parliament in May 2008 and we then started consultation with the fishing industry. Some Governments have continued to support the policy, but I am afraid that it has taken time to get round to implementing it.

My noble friend Lady Byford asked about medical treatment. There is what I suppose you would describe as a trained first-aider, with equipment, on board vessels. If somebody falls ill while they are abroad, the owner of the vessel has to pay the bills for any hospital treatment. However, part of the point of implementing the convention is that we wish to highlight safety on vessels and the need to check the health of fishermen, ensuring that they are fit when they go to sea.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked, quite rightly, about the problems of modern slavery in the fishing industry. There have indeed been such problems, and in fact I think that there was a case last year. It is felt that this measure will tackle the scourge of modern slavery in the industry through enhanced inspections and regulations. That is being borne very much in mind, as is the safety of all fishermen. As we know, it is one of the least safe industries in which to work, which I suppose is not surprising when you consider what fishermen are up against on the sea.

I think that I have covered all the questions. If there are any that I have not answered, I will make sure that I write to noble Lords. However, I hope that the Committee will agree that the Work in Fishing Convention will help to overcome the dangers associated with the fishing industry. The Government are committed to improving safety in this sector and it is right that all fishermen are afforded the protections within the convention relating to working conditions. I commend the draft order to your Lordships.

Motion agreed.