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20 Nov 2008 : Column 417

My biggest concern in my constituency is not to do with the catching side, as one of the sad changes over the past 30 years or so is that boats registered in Aberdeen now tend to operate out of other ports. My main interest is in the processing side of the industry, for which the discard problem also creates a massive difficulty. Processors feel a huge amount of frustration because discarded fish are lost, with the result that obtaining sufficient raw material is their biggest problem. Over the past few years that has led to fish being imported from other parts of the world such as Canada and the Baltic. The ditching of our own fish is causing real distress and concern to the processing industry.

I want to say something about employment in the processing side of the industry, and then add a little about employment in the catching side. All of us with processing facilities in our constituencies know that the industry would be in difficulties without the influx of migrant labour—certainly, there has been a considerable flow of people from eastern Europe into Aberdeen.

Skilled labour is more important in the smaller companies because they do their own filleting and so on, whereas the larger companies use machinery for filleting and more of their labour is unskilled. Rough estimates suggest that the influx accounts for between a fifth and a quarter of the smaller companies’ work force, with the proportion being slightly higher in the larger companies. Even so, the total number of people employed in Aberdeen has fallen from between 2,000 or 2,500 to around 1,000: about a quarter of them are from eastern Europe, although some Chinese workers are also employed.

There are many problems with recruitment in Aberdeen, especially of local labour. In years gone by, many young people in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of Aberdeen, South would have done training and apprenticeships and then pursued a career in the industry. Nowadays, however, the industry is not attractive, and the young people who would have gone into it prefer to work in Tesco or Sainsbury. The jobs are cleaner and the people who do them do not smell when they meet their girlfriends at night. In some cases, the wages are better as well, with the result that the industry faces major problems with training and recruitment in the future. It cannot continue to depend on migrant labour.

A constant grievance in the industry is that, whenever there is a crisis, the catching side gets funding that is not so readily available to the processing side. There was a massive decommissioning of vessels a few years ago to sharpen up the industry and help it to make progress towards its present sustainability, but at the time processors were also going through a number of transitions. There were new water regulations, certainly in our area, because of European directives and local requirements, and new food standards regulations also impacted really heavily. However, there was no sign of support, even though the processing industry supports a huge number of jobs throughout the country. These are important issues for us.

I know that we have a lot of time this afternoon, but I shall try to deal quickly with the other issue that I want to raise. Earlier, I mentioned the employment problems in the processing side of the industry, but employment difficulties in the catching side are also causing increasing
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concern and some difficulties. I hope that I have sufficiently praised the Scottish industry for the way it has adapted to become sustainable, but I am not patting it on the back in this particular case.

Historically, the fishing industry in Scotland—and, I am sure, the rest of the country—has recruited from the towns and villages where the boats were based. Recruitment was local but fishing vessels travelled far and wide in their search for fish. Nowadays things are slightly different. I mentioned the influx of migrant labour into the processing industry. In my area, the north-east of Scotland, the oil and gas industry has been with us since the mid-1970s. In fact, since the mid-1960s people have searched for the oil. Those industries offered Scottish fishermen alternative employment, some directly in the industry, others on supply or stand-by vessels, which are mandatory for every offshore platform.

As I say, in the past few years, there has been a significant influx of immigrant labour, particularly from eastern Europe, in the processing side of the industry. All those workers are subject to British employment laws. They are entitled to the minimum wage and the same health and safety and other protections. They pay tax and national insurance on their earnings. However, in more recent years, there is strong evidence of an influx of immigrants who are being exploited by the fishing industry and who may be operating in this country illegally.

The International Transport Workers Federation, a body that represents trade unions in the transport industry around the world, recently published a report entitled “Migrant Workers in the Scottish and Irish Fishing Industry”. If the Minister does not have a copy, I will send him one. The report charts the growing number of workers from countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia who are now working in the Scottish and Irish—mainly Northern Irish, although some are in southern Ireland—industry. It gives a number of examples from the past two years of how the trade operates. I will not go through those examples, but they include cases from Fraserburgh and Peterhead on the east coast of Scotland, Ullapool and Mallaig on the west coast, and Irish examples, particularly around the port of Killeen.

Workers sign contracts in their home countries, and those contracts are used by the agents with whom the workers sign up to obtain transit visas. My understanding is that transit visas are issued to allow people to travel through a country. The ITF has found that in the fishing industry, it is normal for the applicant—in most cases, the employment agent—to claim that the individual will be operating out of the UK port, and will be fishing in foreign waters, usually in Norway. In most cases, only UK waters are fished, so there are inadequate checks on how the transit visas are used. No money changes hands between the vessel operators and the foreign worker. Money is usually paid by the agents in the home country. In one example, a group of workers were paid €241 a month, although they had been promised €800 in the contract that they signed. They were required to work a 20-hour day, and the ITF calculated that that meant that in some cases they were receiving as little as 20p an hour.

In many cases, no accommodation is provided. The fishing trips could last as long as three months, with very few days of rest in port. The ITF found that no record of hours of work and rest were kept in most of
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the cases that it examined. In most instances, no safety training was given and health and safety requirements were generally ignored. In addition to facing poor working conditions, the foreign workers were afterwards left to find their own way back to their home country, whether they had come to the end of their contract, or whether there was an ill-health issue.

The ITF found that in many cases, where no accommodation was provided for workers, workers were required to stay on the fishing vessels between trips. In one recent case—it is still going through the legal processes, so I will be careful what I say about it—two Filipino crew members and a Latvian died in a fire on a vessel. I understand that some of the lessons learned are quite serious for the way such migrants will be treated; however, I shall not go into that here. I understand that so little information was held on the individuals who died that it took more than a week to identify the bodies. The owners of the vessel did not have information on who those people were.

When I discussed the situation with the ITF inspector for Scotland, Mr. Norrie McVicar, who is based in my constituency in Aberdeen, he advised me that the ITF estimates that there are about 1,000 immigrant workers—that is a huge number—mainly from Asia, working in the Scottish and Irish industries. The bulk of them are in Scotland. He has had frequent meetings with Filipino workers in Fraserburgh, particularly following the fire and the deaths. He estimates that there are about 400 such workers in Fraserburgh alone.

I am told that the situation for migrant workers in Fraserburgh is so desperate that the local community, through the Fishermen’s Mission, distributes clothes. Many of the migrant workers are not used to the Scottish climate, and some arrived in Aberdeen, Inverness or other points of entry dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, because that is what they are used to wearing in their home country. They just were not prepared for the Scottish climate. Because of their low wages, they have no money to buy more suitable clothing. I pay tribute to the people of Fraserburgh for their continued compassion for migrant workers in their town and to the Fishermen’s Mission.

I know that transit visas are not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but it is clear that the transit visa system for non-EU migrant fishermen is being abused. The ITF has been in touch with the local immigration authorities in Scotland, and I have sent a copy of the ITF report to the Home Secretary and asked her to look into the matter. The ITF has a good track record on dealing with such issues around the world, and it has procedures to assist fishermen and other seafarers to get compensation for the non-payment of wages. The report makes it clear that it has been successful in some cases, even in the Scottish fishing industry.

Fishermen are being employed at rates ranging from 50p to £1.50 an hour. Any other worker in the UK is entitled to the minimum wage, which is several times both of those figures. I have asked local minimum wage enforcement officers to investigate that situation and particularly the nature of contracts between vessel owners in Scotland and employment agents. It is difficult to understand why, when there are so many unemployed people in the north of Scotland, particularly around the coastal villages, and a ready supply of workers, including fishermen, from the EU, it is necessary to bring workers
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from the far east with questionable legal status. If normal procedures were being followed, work permits would not have been granted in the cases cited in the ITF report. In that case, employers would be paying national insurance and be subject to minimum wage regulations, and the workers themselves would be paying NI contributions and tax on their earnings.

The evidence amassed by the ITF suggests that a form of trafficking and serious exploitation of workers from developing countries are taking place in Scotland. Most of those workers never complain and simply accept their lot. It is important to say that the majority of fishing boat owners do not employ immigrant fishermen, but those who do are exploiting the vulnerable, breaking the law—certainly in relation to immigration requirements and possibly in relation to health and safety and the minimum wage—and failing to comply with international human rights treaties. Their behaviour is a stain not only on the fishing industry but on our whole country.

3.2 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The comments by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) will cause immense concern in all parts of the country, especially fishing communities. I was brought up on an island and now live in a fishing community. In my experience, such communities care about individuals and value fair treatment. I hope that his comments are heard elsewhere in government and that action is taken.

I welcome the Minister to his new job and congratulate him on having got up to speed very quickly on a brief that is not only complex but challenging. I also pay tribute to his predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who did not have long in the job but who made a significant impact. If he had been given a longer opportunity, he would have achieved a great deal more.

As is traditional, the Minister opened his remarks this afternoon by reminding us that this year, as every year, men engaged in the fishing industry have lost their lives, and he was absolutely right to do so. We should remember the contribution made by the emergency services, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the coastguard to dealing with those incidents.

It is perhaps opportune to reflect that the editorial in this week’s Fishing News is entitled “Making safety a habit”:

Most tellingly of all, it goes on to observe:

It is worth reflecting on what the Fishing News editorial says, because, as the Minister is new to the job, it is important for him to understand not just that he is taking on a job that involves an immense amount of detail, with talk of quota, total allowable catches,
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transferable quota and the rest of it, but that the decisions that he makes as a Minister, and of which he will be a part next month when he goes to Brussels, can be, in a very real sense for many men working in the industry, life and death decisions.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman referred to a Fishing News item about a boat that sank off my constituency, and I should like to draw the House’s attention to the work of Dr. John MacLeod of Lochmaddy, who won a Fishing News award for his work on life-saving equipment—workable life-saving equipment—that can be fitted to fishermen.

Mr. Carmichael: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having brought that fact to my attention; I was not aware of it. He is right to highlight the very important contributions that are made by so many people in so many different ways.

One issue concerns not only fishermen in my constituency, but fishermen who go to work in the northern North sea from all parts of the country. I hope that the Minister will take on board what I am about to say and make representations to the Department for Transport on behalf of those fishermen, because last Friday afternoon it was announced that the back-up helicopter that is stationed as part of the search and rescue service at Sumburgh airport is to be withdrawn, so that cover can be provided by CHC Helicopter Corporation, which has the contract on the south coast of England. We, here, have the luxury of debating in the relative comfort and safety of the Chamber, but I am told that at home in Orkney, a fierce wind is beginning to blow from the north. That is by no means unusual in the northern isles in November. Although CHC’s attitude towards the provision of its services and the removal of the back-up may not be in breach of its contract, it certainly is in breach of the spirit in which CHC was intended to perform its functions. I very much hope that all arms of government will be employed to bring that point home to it most forcefully.

As ever, the fishing industry has had an eventful year. Earlier this year, the Minister’s predecessor acquired a fair degree of unwelcome attention and some heat in respect of fuel costs. The fishing industry will always employ a particular argument about those costs, and I hope that, given that some of the political heat has been taken out of the issue because fuel prices are now lower, work will now be done on the role of fishermen as market takers rather than as market makers. It is always easy to say that some should receive special consideration, but, when an industry is in a particular position, as the fishing industry is because it cannot pick and choose where and when it sells its fish, or the price, special considerations must apply. Such work must be done now while the fuel issue is not as contentious as it has been.

It is remarkable how we in this debate always focus our attention on the December European Union Fisheries Council, but it is particularly opportune that we have the debate today, because, in my experience, the real decisions are made not at the December Fisheries Council but at the EU-Norway negotiations. I have never understood why we do not pay more political attention to those negotiations, because they seem to be
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the absolutely crucial ones, and the December Fisheries Council is simply left to carve up what is agreed. The EU-Norway negotiations are particularly important this year, not least because of the attitude of the Norwegian Minister with responsibility for fishing and the Norwegian Government in general. I hope that there is an element of grandstanding in some of what the Norwegian Government are saying. They talk about a total discard ban and a land-all policy for fish caught in Norwegian waters.

I suspect that there is an element of grandstanding. The Norwegian Government say that herring are their first priority in respect of banning discards; that may be grandstanding because those who know about these things tell me that there is very little, if any, discard of herring, so achieving that total ban should not be as challenging as it first sounds. However, it is clear that this year Norway is giving discards a political importance that they have not had in the past. Ultimately, I hope that that will help, although I also hope that we will not be left having to sweep up bureaucratic and unhelpful measures as a consequence of grandstanding. I would like there to be direct political—rather than official—input into the EU-Norway talks. I know that, in principle, the talks are conducted by the Commission on behalf of the EU, but talks of such importance should involve politicians rather than officials.

Others have spoken about discards. We have to get on the record the fact that the fishermen are those who hate the level of discards most. Discarding is not a consequence of naked greed; fishermen do not go out and hoover up everything that they can lay their nets on. It is a consequence of the disparity between the quota level set and the fish to be found in the sea. In summer this year, the Minister’s predecessor visited Shetland. Josie Simpson of Whalsay, who has a long history and pedigree in the fishing industry and fishing politics, told the Minister that he had never known a time in his life as a fisherman when the gap between the quota and the reality had been so wide. That fact is behind the significant discards that we are seeing.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the science does not reflect what is in the water today; it might reflect what was there a couple of years ago, but life has moved on significantly. That is why I keep coming back to this plea to the Minister: whatever is given to ICES to inform its advice, the decision making must be based also on information from the industry itself—after all, people who work in the industry see what is in the sea—and on scientific advice at an earlier stage that has been analysed rather more crudely. There is always the opportunity for that “quick and dirty approach”, as I call it, to be quality-controlled through measurement against the refined product, which is all we get at the moment. If that shows a broadly consistent position, we should know that the initial analysis has been reliable.

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