Calls were made last week across the industry to pause the roll-out of the ML5 provisions, after further controversy arose around the involvement of harbour masters in providing evidence in support of fishermen.

The MCA has for some months been advising individual fishermen who have a BMI that would trigger further investigation and referral to the MCA medical board to seek written confirmation from their local harbour master in support of their application for an ML5 certificate.

Last week, it emerged that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) never actually discussed the matter with the Harbour Masters’ Association, or even flagged the issue up with them.

The admission came after a long exchange of correspondence between NUTFA and the MCA, including details of ongoing individual cases involving longstanding fishermen who had taken the advice of the MCA and approached their local harbour masters for assistance.

“This revelation comes in Mental Health Week, putting a spotlight on the unprecedented mental health epidemic that our fishermen, particularly those working inshore, are facing,” NUTFA’s Sarah Ready told FN.

“The MCA, instead of supporting improved mental health across our industry, is damaging it. We can only plead with it now to see sense, announce a postponement to the roll-out of the ML5, and come back and sit with the health and safety professionals who can help them draw up meaningful medical certification requirements that genuinely benefit the industry.”

Captain Martin Willis, executive officer and secretary of the UK Harbour Masters’ Association, confirmed in correspondence with NUTFA that the association had had no contact with the MCA on the matter. He wrote: “This is the first we have heard of any potential proposal for a harbour master to approve/ declare any medical fitness assessment on behalf of the MCA for commercial fishermen.

“I would suggest that any proposal as set out below would not be appropriate for any harbour master to undertake due to professional/employers’ liability, their experience to conduct any assessment and likely potential conflict of interest.

“Any move to approve of such assessments would remove a harbour master’s independent impartiality when considering operational safety within their statutory limits and place individual pressure on them from the commercial fishing industry or directly from the individuals involved.”

Commenting on the latest developments with respect to ML5 certification, shadow fisheries minister Daniel Zeichner said: “From start to finish this has been yet another example by government of how not to run a process. The mental fatigue and anguish all this new home-grown red tape is causing our fishing fleets is deplorable.

“Of course we all want a safer fleet, but I am yet to see evidence that the issues dealt with under the ML5 process were the problem.”

Orkney and Shetland Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael told FN: “Once again this shows the utter incompetence in how the government treats fishing matters. What is proposed here is to turn the problems of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency into the problems of harbour masters. Shifting the problem is not the same as solving it.

“I cannot think of any reason why any harbour master would put themselves in that position. It is impossible to see how they would be protected in terms of liability and it represents a clear danger in terms of conflicts of interest. If I were a harbour master I would be seeking independent legal advice as a matter of urgency.

“This speaks to the repeated attitude of ministers and officials throughout the last few years. A decision is made somewhere far from those affected, and then the little people are expected to bob and follow orders. It has not worked before and it will not work now.

“We need root and branch reform in how the MCA and other marine agencies operate. They are supposed to have a responsibility to the people and businesses they work into – somewhere along the line they seem to have lost sight of that.”

The MCA, responding to requests from FN to clarify the situation, argued that the advice to fishermen was aimed at reducing the need for additional medical evidence, rather than creating additional burdens.

The suggestion to fishermen to ask harbour masters for confirmation of fitness to work ‘is not a recent change of policy, but a pragmatic approach to obtaining additional information to assist with assessing fitness in the most convenient way for the seafarer or fisherman concerned’, a spokesperson said.

“The guidance for doctors (MCA Approved Doctors Manual, page 126) says that fitness assessments must be arranged if corroborated reports of ability cannot be obtained from an employer or demonstrated through course attendance, for example.

“As this is difficult for lone working fishermen, a report from another independent source such as an MCA surveyor or harbour master will also suffice. Guidance is being given to the UK Harbour Masters’ Association following discussions about likely increases in such requests.”

The MCA suggested that a ‘statement of ability’ from a harbour master or similar is not a medical report but merely an indication from a professional who has witnessed a fisherman above the trigger BMI at work, showing that they are capable of safe working, both within the harbour and at sea.

Subsequent to being contacted by NUTFA, and then FN, the MCA did appear to be moving swiftly, holding an early online meeting with the UK Harbour Masters’ Association to discuss the issue.

Captain Willis told FN: “The association executive met online with MCA policy advisors so as to ascertain the background and policy delivery regarding this issue. “Following anticipated receipt of a statement of clarification from the MCA, the association’s National Council will be making a considered response over the coming days, well in advance of the November deadline to the MCA, then providing advice to our individual members.”

Medical Certification Statistic: ML5 in figures

The MCA responded quickly to a request from FN last week for an update on the progress of ML5 certifications. However, we don’t have figures for the total numbers of certificates issued or in process, and we can’t judge uptake across different sectors of the fishing industry.

399: the number of fishermen who have had to be referred after initial medical consultations, prior to being granted an ML5

329: the number of completed referral applications

131: the number of completed referrals that have resulted in a ‘fit, with restrictions’ results. The proportions of referrals that have results in ‘fit, with restrictions’ results, the MCA said, is almost identical to figures across the entire medical system. In the system as a whole, the failure rate – those deemed ‘unfit to work’ – is 2.69%.

Unknown: the number of fishermen referred who have sought ‘non-medical’ certification, from a harbour master, employer or similar, in support of their ML5. This data, the MCA said, has not been collected and wouldn’t be available before FN went to press

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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