Industry leaders say a Home Office support package to help the industry adjust to new visa rules for foreign crewmen will do nothing to address the fundamental problem of more time being needed to adjust to the new requirements.

Three weeks ago, the government announced that foreign fishermen working inside 12 miles on transit visas would be fishing illegally with immediate effect.

They must now have skilled worker visas, which are bureaucratic and costly to obtain and include a high level of written and spoken English requirement that few foreign crewmen possess.

The industry had made a strong case for a transition period to enable foreign crews to comply with the new requirements, but the Home Office has rejected this and instead offered a support package (see below).

The industry was dismissive of the package. Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association and a member of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, which has been negotiating with the Home Office for many months, said the letter was ‘a clear signal that this government has blatant disregard for traditional industries, such as the fishing industry’.

He said the new rules ‘challenge the very economic and social wellbeing of artisanal fishermen and their remote communities, such as those to the west of Scotland’.

“For example, the nearest Nephrops grounds outside of the Minches on the west of Scotland lie outside of the shelter provided by the Western Isles some 60 miles from ports such as Mallaig.

“The catching sector, through the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, put forward a strong case for a delay in the introduction of article 43. That delay was to allow the sector to transition to the use of the skilled worker visa, which has no similar restrictions, in an orderly manner.

“The offer of a speedy sponsorship and visa process by the Home Office fails to recognise the main issue that the sector repeatedly raised, which is that fishermen with their B1, four-part, English certificate (SELT) are just not available.

“Our own company, SWFPA Crew Services, have only seven non-UK fishermen with their B1 certificate out of 400, and we have been working on the issue for approaching two years.”

Working with colleagues in Northern Ireland, the SWFPA company has set up an agent in the major English-speaking country of Belize, from which a B1 certificate is not required. Crew Services is also setting up an English-speaking course with the Ghana Maritime Institute in Accra, Ghana, and has linked into two marine academies.

“A period of grace would have made transition possible, but now that hope has been snatched away. On reflection, we should have perhaps written to the Norwegian minister who, on writing to the Home Office, seemed to deliver a concession for Norwegian-owned salmon companies operating well- boats on the west of Scotland,” said Mike Park.

“There is no fix for many of these vessel operators. Some may manage to operate on non-traditional grounds as we approach the calmer summer period, but there can be no doubt that the long harsh winter will take its toll just as the past winter has, when many vessels were instructed by the Border Force to repatriate their non-UK crew.

“In the absence of a future for many of these vessels, Defra and regional administrations will be left to tidy up the mess. Perhaps we have reached the point where Defra now need to have a serious discussion with the Treasury.”

Industry support package

In a letter to the industry setting out details of the support package, home secretary Suella Braverman said the Home Office would like to help businesses in the seafood sector ‘understand the immigration system and offer Home Office premium expedited service products at no cost’.

The support will include:

  • Hosting an initial familiarisation session for industry leaders to meet with experts from the Home Office to talk through the system
  • Working with commercial partners to ensure there is sufficient English language testing capacity in the locations where workers could be recruited from
  • Working with commercial partners to ensure that foreign workers can access visa application centres (VACs) to give biometrics when recruiting non-EEA nationals from overseas. EEA nationals are able to provide biometrics using the UK identity verification app, and so do not need to travel to a VAC
  • Once a sponsor licence application is received, expediting the decision-making process for no extra charge.
  • Once visa applications are received from foreign workers, the Home Office will speed up the visa decision-making process at no additional charge from the standard 15 working days to eight to 10 days
  • Appointing a dedicated point of contact in UK Visas and Immigration.

“This offer goes above and beyond the services normally available to employers seeking help to use the immigration system,” said the home secretary.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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