Transport Secretary Mark Harper (pictured), who was ultimately responsible for the imposition of the ML5 medical certification requirements across the UK fishing fleet last year, admitted that he had ‘got it wrong’ at a meeting in Newlyn last week.

The admission came during a conversation with the inshore members of the Cornish FPO, attended also by local MPs Derek Thomas and Steve Double.

The secretary of state confirmed to the meeting that the ML5 requirement for existing under-10m fishermen – now reinterpreted as anyone who spent four weeks or more at sea in the two-year period prior to the new regulation coming into effect on 1 December, 2023 – would be scrapped.

Three single-handed fishermen with health issues spoke at the meeting, giving the minister their first-hand experience of the impact that the ML5 requirements had had on them, and the stress it had created.

Chris Ranford, chief executive of the CFPO, welcomed the exemption, saying that the regulation had had a devastating impact on many inshore fishermen, whose lives had been turned upside down for no good reason.

The welcome given by CFPO members to the climbdown on the ML5 when they met with Mark Harper in Newlyn last week was tempered by many comments about how unnecessary the process had been, and the stress and expense that many fishermen had suffered.

It was confirmed that under- 10m fishermen who had four weeks at sea in the two-year period prior to 1 December, 2023 would be exempted from the requirement to have an ML5 or ENG1 medical certificate.

After congratulating the minister for having the courage to backtrack on his previous insistence that the ML5 had to be applied across the board, regardless of fishing patterns, the repeated message from the industry was the need to learn lessons from this debacle.

The consultation on the ML5 saw an overwhelming response, with nearly 300 replies, including a host of fishermen’s organisations. Ninety-eight and a half percent of respondents argued for a removal of the requirements for the ML5 for the under-10m fleet, with many also stating that this should apply to all inshore vessels, regardless of length.

Chris Ranford, chief executive of the CFPO, told the minister that he largely supported the idea that newcomers would be subject to more stringent rules, but said he was happy to hear that grandfather rights were effectively being bestowed on those who had been at sea for years, fishing without any issues despite existing and well- managed medical conditions.

Mike Cohen, CEO of the NFFO, who posted a detailed response on the federation’s website, said: “This is a welcome outcome, and desperately needed. [Under 10m] fishermen will no longer have to live with the constant prospect of losing their livelihoods because of medical conditions that are demonstrably having no impact on their safety.”

He did, however, like many other commentators, question why the exemption applied only to under-10m vessels, when many inshore vessels over this size had identical fishing patterns, close to shore and to safe havens.

NUTFA director Jerry Percy said: “This turnaround by the MCA, albeit only in the face of such criticism from across the sector, comes as a massive relief to hundreds of our under-10s who were facing life-changing impacts solely down to the over- zealous and entirely unnecessary approach of senior officers within the MCA.”

Several MPs who had campaigned hard for a change to the regulations made similar comment.

Labour shadow fisheries minister Daniel Zeichner said: “At last the government has bowed to the inevitable – but why has it taken so long, and why have so many had to suffer so much stress and grief? All credit to the NFFO and the detailed work done by them – now the government needs to shift on other issues like boat inspections as well.”

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael said: “Retracting this policy is a good step, but it would have been better not to start down this road in the first place. It should not have taken a consultation – after the policy was supposed to come into force, no less – for the government to change course.”

David Duguid, a Conservative party colleague of the minister, said: “This is a welcome relief for fishermen who were understandably concerned about the impact these medical rules would have on their business and livelihood.”

As FN went to press, we were awaiting confirmation that under-10m fishermen who had previously failed the ML5 would be included in the exemption, if they met the criteria of having been at sea for a four-week period in the two years prior to 1 December, 2023.

There is also the question of compensation for fishermen impacted by the changes. Whilst Mark Harper ruled out, when questioned in Newlyn, any prospect of compensation for fishermen who had spent money and lost sea time due to medical examinations and follow-up appointments, he did accept that in some instances, fishermen had sold up and left the industry as a result of the new rules.

He said he did ‘not rule out’ compensation in such cases, and asked for further information so this could be looked at in more detail.

Full details of the changes, and how they apply, can be found here.

By Andy Read, Editor, Fishing News

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

Sign up to Fishing News’ FREE e-newsletter here

Main image credit: Laurence Hartwell


Subscribe to Fishing News magazine today; never miss an issue and save 55%!