The MCA and the UK Harbour Masters Association both confirmed last week that harbour masters will no longer be asked to provide written confirmation that in their opinion fishermen are fit enough to meet the requirements of the ML5 medical certificate, based on observations of their day to day working practices, such as unloading catches or scaling harbour ladders to board their vessels.

This appears to have been a well-meaning but poorly thought-through move by the MCA, intended to simplify ML5 applications for self-employed fishermen unable to receive such confirmation from an employer. However, the MCA failed to consult with harbour masters before recommending this course of action, or to consider potential liabilities.

Martin Willis, executive officer and secretary of the UK Harbour Masters Association, said: “It was recently brought to our attention by UK commercial fishing interests that the MCA are advising UK commercial fishers who fail the soon to be required ENG1/ML5 medical examination to seek a written confirmation of medical fitness to continue working on their vessels.

“This policy came to our attention from out of nowhere, with no prior notification or engagement from the MCA, and is now being reported in the Fishing News and social media causing a number of members problems as we speak, especially in the South West and Scotland.

“UKHMA officers urgently met online with the relevant MCA policy-makers responsible, who
to be honest had little idea on the liabilities and other key issues of what they were proposing harbour masters submit.

“It appears the MCA have reached the common-sense decision to remove UK harbour masters from providing failed medical observations for commercial fishers.”

A spokesperson for the MCA confirmed the situation to Fishing News, saying: “The option has been in place since 2018 for fishers, particularly those working alone, to ask trusted figures such as harbour masters or MCA surveyors for evidence – equivalent to an employer’s report – to help doctors assess their fitness.

“We understand the concerns raised by the UK Harbour Masters Association, however, and will contact doctors and assessors to advise them to withdraw offering harbour masters as an option.”

The decision, though widely expected, leaves many fishermen in limbo, having received such endorsements from individual harbour masters, who acted in good faith, often in support of fishermen whom they have seen on a daily basis for many years. It’s unknown if ML5 exemptions issued after such endorsements will now be valid or not.

Sarah Ready of NUTFA, who first raised the issue with the Harbour Masters Association, said: “Moves by the MCA team trying to make sense of their orders, and ease the ML5 burden on inshore fishermen, were well intentioned.

“However, fishermen, through no fault of their own, who have followed advice provided to them by the MCA in good faith, are once again in limbo, and worrying about their jobs from 30 November.

“Surely, given this latest issue, the politicians ultimately responsible for this fiasco should admit they have got it wrong, and at the very least confirm a delay in the implementation date of the ML5.”

Jerry Percy, director for NUTFA, added: “The use of harbour masters or surveyors to assess the health and fitness of fishermen has resulted in a debacle. Not only does it put these people in an invidious position with potentially legal impacts should they be considered as medical professionals, but it also begs the question as to who thought up such an idea that a fisherman has to now go through potentially three lots of ‘professionals’ to be able to go to sea: GP, medical assessor (via phone!) and now a harbour master or surveyor.

“It is surely time for the MCA to swallow their pride and have a rethink.”

MCA continues to break its own legislation

As Fishing News went to press, there was little sign that the MCA was meeting its legal obligations to publish reviews on both The Merchant Shipping (Work in Fishing Convention) Regulations 2018 and The Merchant Shipping (Work in Fishing Convention) Medical Certification) Regulations 2018.

The legislation stipulates that these reviews, due on 25 October, 2023, must ‘so far as is reasonable, have regard to how the obligations under the Work in Fishing Convention are implemented in other countries which are subject to the obligations’.

In addition, the legislation says that the report ‘must, in particular’:

  • ‘set out the objectives intended to be achieved’
  • ‘assess the extent to which those objectives are achieved’
  • ‘assess whether those objectives remain appropriate’
  • ‘if those objectives remain appropriate, assess the extent to which they could be achieved in another way which involves less onerous regulatory provision’.

By coincidence, this missed deadline comes almost a year to the day after a similar obligation under the Fishing Vessels (Code of Practice) 2017, Section 21 of which states that the first report must be published before 23 October, 2022. This report remains unpublished, with the MCA unable to confirm any likely date when it will be placed in the public domain.

Sarah Ready of NUTFA, who has repeatedly contacted the MCA asking for sight of the mandatory reports, said: “The shoddy roll-out of the medical certification programme, which the MCA is now breaking its own law in not reporting on, is having a huge detrimental health impact on many working in the inshore fishing fleet.

“Quite how it can claim to have a mandate to enforce the medical requirements from 1 December, when it itself is in breach of the very same regulations, is beyond me. This is very much ‘one rule for us and one rule for them’, and is a very public demonstration of the attitude they take to enforcement with working fishermen.”

The matter was raised in the House of Commons on 26 October.

East Fife MP Wendy Chamberlain quizzed transport minister Mark Harper on the subject, asking: “According to the department’s own regulations, they were meant to report on medical licences for fishermen this week, but they have not.

“When will the department publish the review, and more importantly when will they start listening to fishermen, who are out of pocket, worried about their livelihood and risk becoming uninsured?”

Mark Harper’s reply avoided any direct answer, instead deflecting the subject. He told MPs: “I’m very grateful to the honourable lady for raising this question with me. Just yesterday I met with representatives of the NFFO to discuss this issue in detail. We’ll be able to make some announcements on policy shortly, and I’ll obviously keep the federations informed, as I will members of the House.”

With over a year now elapsed since the MCA missed its legal deadline in relation to the Code of Practice, MPs might best expect to see this report made available by a new transport minister in 2024, and are advised not to hold their breath.

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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