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Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick doesn’t believe there are problems with the current transit visa system. Photo: Tony Fitzsimmons

The question of transit visas for migrant workers visas in the fishing industry was under the spotlight again this week on Tuesday 08 November 2022 at the Labour and Skills Shortages: Temporary Recovery Visa Committee.

The Committee was chaired by Labour MP Judith Cummins with the debate secured by Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats.

Since Brexit, industries such as the fishing and seafood sector, along with hospitality, the meat industry, and health care have suffered a labour shortage that is hampering each sectors’ ability to operate. In the pre-Brexit era, many of these jobs were filled by workers from eastern European countries which are members of the European Union. After Brexit came into force, the UK became a third country outside the EU meaning that these workers would have to comply with transit visa requirements to continue working, but within the visa regulations, having to have a grade B1 in an English exam became a barrier to entry into the UK.

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For the fishing industry, boat owners have become reliant of workers from outside Europe and are now looking to east Asian countries like Malaysia and the Philippines, and countries in Africa like Ghana for crew. The same visa requirements apply to these workers and even though they are skilled workers, many are finding it difficult to meet the language requirements set by the UK government.

Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford in Northern Ireland told the committee of how fishing went from being a successful profitable avenue of employment to the place it is in today where fishermen have become classified as a low-skilled workforce, which led to local people no longer coming into the industry, and this in turn led to boat owners recruiting new crew from overseas. He said:

“Those crews were Filipinos, who became a very important part of fishing for nephrops in the Irish sea and the Clyde.

“The fishing fleet has never pretended that overseas crews offer a long-term replacement for domestic recruits. I understand exactly that it is not a long-term solution, but it is a short-term solution. It would be great if young people from my constituency were going into fishing, but they are not, and neither are young people from Kilkeel or Ardglass.”

“… Overseas crews have filled critical roles, which has kept a large part of the UK’s fishing fleet at sea and, in turn, maintained supplies of domestically caught seafoods to markets at home and overseas. Overseas fishing crews have largely been recruited to the UK on the basis of transit visas. I understand that transit visas were never intended for that purpose. Transit visas permit a crew member to join a vessel that is departing the UK and working outside UK territorial waters.”

He said that under the terms of the transit visa, many boat owners also find having to operate outside the 12-mile limit a challenge when they have an overseas crew onboard.

“Geographically, areas such as the Clyde have nowhere outside 12 miles. I am told that, towards the end of 2021 and early 2022, staff from Border Force visited Campbeltown, where they reminded fishing vessel owners about their roles, and effectively told the owners that overseas crew would have to go home. As a result, boats have been tied up and some have been sold. On 20 August, Border Force visited the fishing community in Mallaig and delivered a similar message to the one that was heard in the Clyde.”

Mr Shannon said that the fishing industry was willing to work towards a solution but there was a blockage in government. He said:

“Fishing vessel operators accept the need for a scheme that is transparent, complies with international law and affords protection to all fishing crew, especially those from overseas. There is no question about what they are trying to achieve. Fishermen and fisherwomen are skilled professionals, as the Government recognised in early 2021, following a recommendation from the Migration Advisory Committee. However, despite the committee’s further advice that deckhands be added to the shortage occupation list, the then Home Secretary declined to approve the recommendation, and stated that more time was needed to examine the impact of the covid pandemic on UK employment levels.”

He said that the requirement of being fluent in English to obtain a transit visa needs to be examined, especially when it comes to the fishing industry especially when it is accepted that skills differ across professions.

“Leaving the EU creates opportunities for our fishermen, yet they are still competing with EU fishermen. The Home Office’s refusal to engage with the fishing industry and consider a bespoke or flexible approach to the issues around overseas crews compares less than favourably with the approach taken by others, such as the Dublin Government. In Ireland, a partnership approach has recently resulted in a new policy being unveiled. When we meet the Minister, we might be able to share this example, which is a constructive one.”

Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP and group leader of Plaid Cymru, Liz Saville Roberts also brought up the problem of labour shortage in the fishing industry.

She said:

“Many, if not all, of us are aware that the hard Brexit the Government are pursuing is causing huge damage across many industries. I, too, want to focus on labour shortages as they affect the larger fishing vessels in Wales, just as they do beyond, as we have already heard.

“I support local employment on Welsh fishing vessels, as would every local MP, but the simple truth is that the people are not there to do those jobs at present. Fishing vessels therefore need to be able to recruit from abroad to fill the gap in the short and medium term. Much like elsewhere in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, the fishing fleet is being reduced. I do not think that is something any of us wants to be seen to be presiding over. Since 2018, it has been reducing by about 6% per year in Wales, possibly as the result of a combination of an ageing workforce, high costs of entry and now a restrictive visa system.”

She brought up the case of one of her constituents, Mark Roberts from Neyfn who has been trying to recruit new crew members. She said:

“Mr Roberts has been trying to recruit fishing crew members from outside the European economic area. In the past, he has employed local crew, a number of whom have now gone on to own their own vessels. He would like to continue to employ a local crew, but the plain truth is that they are just not there. He faces not being able to go out to sea and operate as a business unless he has a sufficient number of crew members.

“Mr Roberts told me that one of the main barriers to employment is the written English language element of the skilled worker visa, for which fishing crew members are eligible. He wanted me to raise the case of a Ghanaian fisherman who recently failed the B1 English exam for a fourth time. He is a highly skilled, highly motivated fisherman and he continues to persevere with the test. However, it has caused additional delay and cost for both him and Mr Roberts.

“Mr Roberts and the rest of the crew have been trying to tutor him, in the hope that he will be able to pass next time. They also hope that the Home Office will relax the rule and recognise that written English is not a key skill for this vocational area. Does someone need written English to be a proficient crew member on a fishing vessel, when there is a skipper alongside? If we want our crews and our vessels to survive into the future, is that a skill we need, here and now?

“The experience is, of course, far from unique.”

Speaking on behalf of the Government, Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick denied there were any issues with the current transit visa system saying that they can train people in the country to meet those challenges. He said there are 5 million economically inactive people in the country, and it was a requirement to bring them back into the labour market. He said:

“It is important to say at the outset that an impression has been given during the debate that the visa system is highly restrictive, enabling few people to come into the country, and that essentially migrant labour has been cut off as a result of policy decisions. That really is not true. We have a comparatively flexible work visa system, and the Home Office granted over 330,000 work-related visas in the year ending June 2022, including—I will come to this in more detail in a moment—just over 96,000 health and care worker visas to support the NHS. We have more than doubled the number of eligible occupations for skilled worker visas so that more than 60% of jobs in the UK economy are now eligible. Over 48,000 employers are now on the sponsor register, and we encourage others to join.

“We have to set today’s debate, and the important and valid points that have been raised, within that context. As a country, we are welcoming very significant numbers of people to work and live here as a result of our visa system. Of course, there can be a legitimate debate about who we are inviting in, and whether we address specific concerns, but it is not correct to suggest that we have a highly restrictive system, or that that has been a consequence of leaving the European Union.”

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Immigration Minister denies problems with transit visa system

by editor time to read: 11 min