Cautious optimism that crewing law could change but Brexit hampering government work
Crewing remains a serious problem for vessels working inside the 12-mile limit, but the changes in immigration law needed to improve the situation are being hampered because government resources and time are concentrated on Brexit, reports Tim Oliver
But there is cause for ‘cautious optimism’ that changes to regulations proposed in the recent immigration white paper could enable foreign crews to be employed on work permits.
The Immigration Advisory Committee is due to report on immigration issues in the spring, and is currently taking evidence on the need for changes to immigration laws.
Current regulations prevent non-EEA workers being employed on vessels working inside 12 miles, and the industry has been pressing hard for changes in the law to alter this. Problems are particularly acute in the Irish Sea and west of Scotland, where geography dictates that most fishing grounds accessible by local fleets are inside 12 miles.
There are also safety issues if moderately-sized boats are forced to work in more dangerous offshore waters because of crewing laws.
There are possible changes to the law that could allow non-EEA workers such as Filipinos to be employed on boats that work inside 12 miles. One is a change to the job eligibility skill levels that allow legitimate immigrant labour to include fishing. Another is that lower-skilled workers – the category that currently includes fishing – could be allowed to work on a short-term basis, for example one year.
Darren Stevenson of Glasgow solicitors McGill & Co is a specialist in immigration law and has been working with the fishing industry, and advising the industry on these issues, for some time. He told Fishing News: “The industry has, over recent years, developed collaboration on work to promote reform of our immigration system.
“Key industry figures such as Mike Park of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association (SWFPA), Alan McCulla of the Anglo-North Irish FPO, and Harry Wick of the Northern Ireland FPO co-operate closely to ensure that the industry is pro-active in engagement with government and stakeholders, and I have been involved in assisting with this work.
“This includes responding to consultations such as the Migration Advisory Committee’s recent call for evidence on the shortage occupation list. There are a number of potential ways forward for the industry, and the government’s recent white paper proposes changes that could permit the engagement of fishing vessel crew on work permits.
“This potential resolution to the crewing issue may require focus on reinforcing the skill demanded of a competent crew member, and is one area of work ongoing at present. The current uncertainty at Westminster is clearly a concern; however, the general direction of travel towards a degree of liberalisation within the immigration system is cause for cautious optimism.”
Answers needed urgently
A number of MPs highlighted the urgency of finding solutions to the crewing problem during the annual debate on fisheries at the end of last year.
Brendan O’Hara, SNP MP for Argyll and Bute, called on the government to relax the regulations that prevent non-EEA crews working on vessels that fish inside the 12-mile limit.
He said that the problem was particularly acute on the west coast of Scotland, where the 12-mile limit extends ‘vast distances into the Atlantic’.
He said: “Few inshore vessels can or will travel that distance, but they are told repeatedly that they cannot recruit professional international seafarers from countries such as the Philippines or Ghana, and can use only UK or EU nationals to crew their vessels.”
Describing some of the difficulties skippers and vessel owners encountered when they tried to employ non-EEA crew, he said, “It is little wonder that so many are totally scunnered and are seeking a way out of the industry.”
David Duguid, Conservative MP for Banff and Buchan, said that some 800 crewmen out of 4,900 Scottish full-time fishermen were non-EEA workers, illustrating the importance of this pool of labour to the Scottish fleet.
“The skipper of a vessel is required to demonstrate to the overseas British embassy that his vessel has operated for the previous three months outside of 12 miles – only then will the fisherman be granted his visa”
He said: “Non-EEA workers enter the country to work on a fishing vessel using a transit visa, the current definition of which allows vessels to operate out of the UK without entering a foreign port, so long as they stay outside of 12 miles while fishing.
“The skipper of a vessel is required to demonstrate to the overseas British embassy that his vessel has operated for the previous three months outside of 12 miles – only then will the fisherman be granted his visa.”
He said that a number of vessels had been sold because of crew shortages, particularly on the west coast of Scotland.
“We have made several representations on a cross-party basis to the UK immigration minister for the 12-mile restriction to be removed, so that every segment of our fleet can get access to the same pool of labour.
“Given the current plight of our vessels when it comes to finding suitable crew, I ask the minister to push for that 12-mile restriction to be lifted.”
Northern Ireland MP Jim Shannon (DUP) said crewing was ‘a key issue’, and that the minister and MPs were aware of the situation.
“Filipino crews are consistently dependable. They come to work, do the business, and commit themselves totally to it. We spoke to the minister about that last week, and I know he shares our concerns, as does the shadow minister,” he said.
“We look forward to some help in persuading the Home Office to put those fishermen into the skilled category, thus enabling them to become part of what we want for our fishing fleets across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael (Lib Dem) said that the immigration minister had said earlier in the year that ‘work as a joined-up government’ was needed to address the matter.
“I wonder how that work as a joined-up government has been going – it does not look particularly joined-up from where I see it today. However, it is of enormous importance,” he said.
He said that the issue particularly affected the inshore fleet, but also has a serious effect in relation to the bigger boats in the whitefish and the pelagic sectors.
“Essentially, to get round the lack of proper working visas, fishing crews are having to come in on transit visas. The welfare issues surrounding that are well documented. The real difficulty is that it leaves fishing skippers having to fish where visa regulations allow them to, not where they know they will find fish. Eventually that will have an impact on safety – we all know that. That is why the issue cannot be kicked down the road any more. The subject commands attention on behalf of fishing communities represented on both sides of the House.
“I say to the minister that if he is genuinely part of a joined-up government, we need to see a resolution to this issue.”
Replying to the debate, George Eustice said only that the matter was an issue for the Home Office. “I undertake to talk to my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office again after this debate, to see whether we can make some progress on this issue,” he said.
Brendan O’Hara asked the minister to recognise the ‘strength of feeling’ on the crewing issue. “When he speaks to his ministerial colleagues, will he advocate on behalf of those of us who desperately need this law changed?” he asked the minister.
DEFRA: ‘Get ready for no-deal Brexit’
DEFRA says it is encouraging the fishing industry to start preparing for Brexit, to ensure that businesses can continue to import and export fish and fish products once the UK leaves the EU.
“Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed. Our aim remains to sign, ratify and approve the withdrawal agreement, and for it to enter into force on 30 March, 2019. However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no-deal scenario,” said DEFRA.
From 29 March, 2019, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, most fish and fish products will require a catch certificate for import or export between the UK and EU. This also applies to fishermen who land fish directly into EU ports.
DEFRA says that catch certificates prove that fish has been caught in line with established conservation and management measures. All non-EU countries are required to present catch certificates when trading with the EU. Under the requirements, on leaving the EU:
- UK exporters will be required to obtain a validated catch certificate to accompany their exports of most fish or fish products into the EU (excluding some aquaculture products, freshwater fish, some molluscs, fish fry or larvae)
- Importers will have to submit an import catch certificate to the port health authorities or relevant fisheries authority, to be checked before the estimated arrival time into the UK
- Exporters may also need to obtain supporting documents if the fish has been processed or stored in a country that is not the flag state.
A new IT system to process and issue export catch certificates and other supporting documentation is being developed to help streamline the process.
“Exporters will receive full instructions on how to register and use the new system before we leave the EU. Import catch certificates will continue to be processed through the current paper-based system,” says DEFRA.
“In addition to documents required under Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) regulations, businesses will also need to follow additional steps to comply with health and customs regulations, in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.”
To plan ahead for creating a catch certificate, businesses and individuals exporting fish products to the EU will need to know the species, the vessel that caught it, the date it was landed, and the weight of the consignment.
Fishermen and fishing businesses can stay up to date with the latest advice on importing and exporting after Brexit at: gov.uk