The home office decision to bring into effect, at less than 24 hour’s notice, a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to the use of transit visas in the fishing industry was raised last week at Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament.

The timing and speed of the implementation of the decision sparked an outcry from the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance and vessel owners, many of whom were at sea when they heard of the decision.

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, given a rare chance to question the PM, used the opportunity to challenge him on the announcement, which he said would severely hamper skippers across the UK, with some unable to go to sea after the announcement was made, for fear of creating issues with officialdom.

Mr Carmichael said: “Last week the Home Office announced that they would not be setting up a bespoke visas scheme for the fishing industry, of the sort that is already available for people working in fish farms and offshore wind farms. They also told skippers that crew previously employed under the temporary scheme had to stop working immediately.

“The prime minister and his party promised our fishermen a ‘sea of opportunity’. What is the point of a sea of opportunity if you can’t get crew to fish in it?”

Rishi Sunak’s response was not a direct answer. Referencing the £100m UK Fisheries Fund as evidence of support for the industry, he added: “I’m not sure that I recognise the characterisation the gentleman put forward.

“We are proud champions of the UK’s fishing industry. We are always looking to engage with them to make sure that they get the support that they need and the opportunities that are there for them because of Brexit.”

Reacting after the exchange, Mr Carmichael said: “The numbers of workers and vessels affected may be small, but they represent a vital part of our isles’ economy – and the knock-on effects to the processing and food production sectors will be far-reaching. This is an urgent issue, and the complacent response from the government is not good enough. We need proper answers and a change of course now.”

Home Office refuses visa delay but offers ‘generous support’

Home Office minister Sarah Dines refused last week to make any further concessions to the fishing industry on visas for foreign crews, or to extend the grace period to allow the industry more time to comply with the skilled worker entry requirements.

She did say that the Home Office would shortly announce ‘a generous offer’ of assistance ‘going over and above what is normally available to employers to assist the industry’.

Speaking on Thursday last week in an urgent parliamentary debate on the crewing issue called by Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, the minister told MPs: “We are currently finalising the details of our offer of support as a matter of urgency.”

She said it had been the longstanding position of this and other governments that foreign nationals working in the UK should comply with the immigration system. “I do not believe this is controversial, and the fishing industry is no exception to this,” she said.

The government had already delayed implementing for six months the requirement that foreign crews must have a work visa rather than a transit visa to work inside 12 miles ‘to allow the industry to regularise the position of its workers’ and would not delay any further, she added.

Making repeated references to the ‘generous support package’ in her answers, she claimed that the package was available ‘in recognition of the fact that the industry has not been a wide user of the immigration system to date’, failing completely to acknowledge the fact that crew working on transit visas are not immigrants, but remain legally resident in their home countries.

Responding to the minister’s statement, Alistair Carmichael said it was ‘not so much an answer as an insult’.

He said the fishing industry, through the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, had itself constructed a detailed scheme that was ‘to all intents and purposed identical to schemes available to workers in aquaculture and the offshore renewable industries’.

“We need answers from the home secretary,” said Alistair Carmichael, calling for an urgent meeting with fishermen’s representatives and concerned MPs from all parties. “Why is the fishing industry not allowed the same opportunities as are given to workers in aquaculture and offshore renewables, and why was a grace period not allowed for fishermen to make alternative arrangements?”

Speaking after the debate, Alistair Carmichael said: “It would be easy to say that the fishermen I have spoken to are simply angry – but they were not. They just sounded utterly desolate and desperate.

“The Conservatives may not care for fishermen, but you would think they would care about the knock-on effects to processing, to hospitality – and of course to food price inflation.”

Northern Ireland FPO chief executive Harry Wick, a member of the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance, and at the leading edge of moves to support workers to take the skilled worker route, was listening to the debate.

Speaking afterwards, he told FN: “NIFPO is deeply frustrated with the government’s absolutely tone-deaf and disingenuous responses to the urgent questions asked today by concerned politicians from across the political divide.

“This is about fishing vessels being able to go to sea with enough experienced crew to operate safely. The fundamental problem is that there aren’t significant numbers of fishermen anywhere in the world who can pass the B1 language exam, and we simply cannot produce them out of thin air.

“No amount of ‘generous support’ offered by the government will change the fact that what we need is time! It is staggering for the government to suggest the industry has for years been using the ‘wrong visa’, when they themselves have repeatedly failed, and are still failing, to offer any workable visa by way of alternative.”

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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