Ben Rochelle is a Senior Political Consultant at The Whitehouse Consultancy, specialising in education policy.
The Cabinet is in disagreement this week on whether the Government should introduce its own fishing quotas after Britain leaves the EU.
Michael Gove says the Government will set its own quotas, whilst Philip Hammond suggests the country will share control with the EU.
This will have significant implications for the future of the UK fishing sector, but we’ve received little detail on who will catch our fish post-Brexit and how the Government can address the current labour and skills shortage so evident in large parts of the British fishing industry.
There is, at present, a major shortage of fishermen in the UK fishing fleet. During a recent debate in Parliament, MPs representing the coastlands of Scotland talked about an industry crippled because boats cannot get the crew they need to go to sea.
Stories were told of fishing boats on the west coast of Scotland and in Northern Ireland tied up due to a lack of seamen. Local labour is at an all-time low in many of the key fishing regions, with more men of working age joining the offshore oil, gas and renewables industries, the merchant navy, and the tourism sector, rather than turning to a career in fishing.
Demographic trends add further difficulties; in the Western Isles for example, it’s estimated that the number of people aged between 17 and 65 will fall by 1,979 in the next seven years – a reduction of 12 per cent. Meanwhile the number of people aged over 66 will rise by 1,482, an increase of 26 per cent.
This is inevitably having a negative impact on local economies as the onshore processing infrastructure operates at lower rates of production. Markets are being lost as continued supply cannot be guaranteed – all at a time when demand for high-quality seafood from the coasts of Scotland is in serious demand across the globe.
In addition to this, the Treasury is losing out due to reduced taxation being collected from vessels and crews and decreasing levels of export sales.
While the British fishing industry has access to EU fishermen, notably from Romania and Turkey, there are insufficient numbers of experienced seamen. Many fishermen from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), such as those from the Philippines, have the skills and experience that is desperately needed but no legal entitlement to work in the UK, including our territorial waters.
Between 2010 and 2012 the Government introduced short-term visas for a select number of non-EEA fishermen. This worked well, satisfying a fundamental labour and skills shortage in the sector which was evident at the time and is very evident now. Non-EEA seamen knew how long they were going to be working in the UK, in the full knowledge that if they did not return home within the specified period they would be denied a future visa.
The Government would do well to re-implement this visa system during the Brexit negotiations, allowing controlled and fair migration into the fishing industry. We are not talking about large numbers here. The Western Isles Fishermen’s Association and the Orkney Fisheries Association both say that just 60 experienced fishermen from outside the EEA would be required to crew the inshore fleet to the required levels and provide the necessary volumes of landings needed for the onshore factories to operate at a sustainable level.
The UK’s current shortage occupation list could be opened up to accommodate low-skilled occupations where there is a clear sector need, such as in the fishing industry. This will help to fill a skills shortage and give people who come from overseas to work in British territorial waters the protection of the national minimum wage and safe and proper accommodation.
Such a move will support the Treasury with taxes and oil consumption but above all bring a much-needed boost to local communities and allow onshore factories to work at a profitable level of production.
The Cabinet must unite quickly to make sure that a vital industry, which has provided long term sustainable employment in fragile coastal areas for generation, is able to prosper in a post-Brexit world.