Home Office refusal to exempt fishing crew compounded by apparent plan to enforce rules with immediate effect

Defra officials confirmed last week a decision that could create an immediate crisis within many sectors of the UK fleet. The bombshell letter stated: “The home secretary and immigration minister have today responded to the advice on immigration options for the fishing sector, and reviewed the evidence provided by the sector.

“They have decided not to create a bespoke arrangement for the fishing sector and there will not be an immigration rules concession, which means that as planned, all foreign nationals doing any work in UK waters from 12 April must have the correct permission to work.”

The Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance (FWA) and others in the industry have long called for the authorities to provide the time needed for an orderly transition to new arrangements, such as employment of foreign crew through the skilled worker visa route.

Industry leaders have been at pains to point out that this is not a ‘stalling exercise’ designed to buy time for an industry that has no intention of complying with the stricter arrangements required for skilled workers. The industry provided Defra and the Home Office with a carefully produced roadmap for an orderly transition over two years, with measurable targets and benchmarks that could be used to check progress over the transition period.

Shock decision by Home Office on fishing crew visas

Foreign crew working on gear on the quay at Kilkeel. Industry leaders in Northern Ireland have long pointed out that several hundred shore-based jobs in the port, the largest scampi-processing hub in the British Isles, are dependent on a small number of foreign crew. Loss of these crew is likely to have severe knock-on consequences for fishermen, processors and UK consumers, out of all proportion to the number of foreign crew employed. (Photo: Leslie Campbell)

It was anticipated that the Defra letter would be followed shortly by additional responses from the Home Office, which were not yet available as FN went to press. However, these were expected to relate to provisions of the skilled worker visa – which by coincidence saw a £600 increase in the minimum permitted salary, to £26,200, come into effect on 12 April.

Fishing industry leaders have long pointed out the flaws in the skilled worker scheme, in particular the draconian requirement to pass a written English language test, the costs associated with the application, and the lengthy turnaround time, often of many months, for any application to be processed.

Hannah Fennell, CEO of Orkney Fishermen’s Association, told FN: “At the moment we have no additional information, but it seems that as from today, any foreign crew deemed to be working inside 12nm, even near uninhabited islands or skerries, will be expected to have skilled worker visas.

“This is particularly disappointing, as the Migration Advisory Committee consultation on transit and skilled worker visas doesn’t even close until May. We would ask as a minimum that the Home Office awaits the report from this committee before taking any action.”

The FWA, an industry group representing many of the vessels employing foreign crew, which has worked extensively with NGOs and welfare organisations to develop transparent and bespoke welfare standards for foreign crew, is understood to be writing as a matter of urgency to the Home Office seeking clarification.

Mike Park, speaking for the FWA, told FN: “This will now put pressure on the coastal communities in Scotland and especially in the west of Scotland, where all the foreign guys need the skilled worker route to fish inside 12 miles.

“They have nowhere else to go, and getting fishermen through the B1 English language requirement is now a big issue. Crew Services has 325 non-UK crew on its books, of which just six have the B1 English language certificate.”

Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, responded immediately with his concerns about the news, saying: “To announce this decision on the same day that it comes into force is beyond reckless and ridiculous. Home Office ministers must explain themselves – and change course immediately.

“The fishing industry has engaged at every stage with the Home Office, working with officials constructively and supportively to point out the clear problems with the skilled worker visa process for fishermen. The Home Office have been given every bit of information they need, but it seems that they just do not care.

“It is throwing fishermen into legal limbo when many of them are already at sea with their crew, putting them at risk of financial penalties with no warning. It is a classic case of ministers and their officials making a decision on the hoof with no care for the consequences.

“Fishing communities are sick and tired of being caught between governments which treat them with disinterest mixed with contempt – we need change.”

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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