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Brexit: 40% of British Fishing Fleet Crew Are Foreign Nationals

Every now and then (well almost daily at the moment), we come across stories which confound common sense and logic. A recent Tweet by Colin Yeo stated, “Around 40% of the crew of the British fishing fleet are foreign nationals. Once Brexit bites on 1 Jan 21, there’s no visa available for future crew. Looks like pretty bad news for the fishing industry (as for other sectors dependent on hard jobs like this)”. On the one hand, the Brexiteers have positioned themselves as the champions of the fishing industry, on the other, the immigration policy changes brought about by Brexit will mean the sector will not be able to hire the staff it needs. In this article, we will look at the recent recommendations made by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in relation to the fishing industry, and the Government’s response.

What did the MAC recommend?

The MAC recently published its ‘Review of the Shortage Occupation List: 2020’, which was commissioned by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, on 17th March 2020. The MAC was specifically asked to “undertake a review of the composition of the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), with a focus on those occupations skilled to at least Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) level 3 (RQF3 broadly, A-levels) and equivalents in the Devolved Nations”.

One of the main reasons for this review was the inclusion of RQF3 level occupations (those requiring qualifications equivalent to an A-Level) in the new post-Brexit immigration policy. Until now, only occupations requiring degree-level qualifications (RQF6) were included in the Tier 2 skilled work visa scheme. This means that under the new Skilled Worker route, a range of RQF3 level occupations may potentially be eligible for inclusion, hence it was the job of the MAC to determine which ones should be.

As the MAC says in its review, occupations below RQF3 will not be included, in part due to the shorter training period for such roles. It did, however, go on to say, “we received around 40 stakeholder responses (the range of occupations covered was less than half that, as there were multiple responses for some occupations) to the CfE suggesting certain occupations, or job titles within them, should be ‘upgraded’ to RQF3, or above”. They then go on to say, “We have considered all these responses and concluded that most did not make a sufficiently compelling case”. But they selected two occupations within SOC code 9119 which they felt should be reclassified, one of which was deckhands on large fishing vessels (9 metres and above).

The reason why the MAC did this is based on strong evidence in a separate report which found that while there are no formal requirements for entry to the role of a deckhand, it is nevertheless a highly skilled occupation which has undergone considerable change in the past 10-15 years, in large part as a result of new technology. Deckhands are required to have “good knowledge and skill across all aspects of the job but also to have in-depth competence in at least one area such as engineering, net repair, fish handling, catch presentation and the sea”. In addition, the report cited by the MAC explains that deckhand roles involve a high level of responsibility due to the dangerous physical conditions in which they are required to work. It also says that it takes two to three years to acquire the necessary skills including “complex hand-eye skills…for net-mending and rope splicing”, “minute-to-minute responsibility and autonomy” and “a wide range of technical, legal and regulatory knowledge”.

The MAC recommended “deckhands on large fishing vessels (9 metres and above)’ as RQF3 and therefore be eligible for the Skilled Worker route. For this job title, we recommend including a requirement for the applicant to have at least three years full-time experience using their skills. We recognise that there may be operational challenges given the rules on operating inside compared to outside territorial waters, which the Home Office will want to consider”.

What did the Home Office decide based on the advice of the MAC?

In a formal letter of response from Priti Patel to the MAC on 22nd October 2020, she wrote, “You will be very aware the UK labour market is changing rapidly and it will, no doubt, have changed since I commissioned this report and since you considered your recommendations. At this time, the Government has decided not to immediately accept any of the recommendations contained in the MAC’s SOL report”.

The question now is whether this will leave British fishing fleets short of staff from 1st January 2021. While it is likely that on day one, some of the existing EU nationals working in the fishing sector in the UK will have the right to work (e.g. if they have pre-settled or settled status), as free movement ceases to apply, the sector will find it harder to recruit new staff from outside of the UK as each month passes.

It is important to note, however, the Home Secretary didn’t reject the recommendations out of hand, rather she stated, “we intend to continue scrutinising the recommendations to ensure our approach to applying them aligns with the UK labour market, and will consider whether to implement some or all of them in a forthcoming set of changes to the Immigration Rules in 2021”.

Wrapping Up

It will remain to be seen whether the Home Office takes up the recommendations issued by the MAC. With the end of free movement and the Brexit transition period on 1st January 2021, the Home Office, for all their hard stance on immigration, will need to work harder to understand the impact of their policies, and make adjustments in short order as needed. Sectors which are most likely to be impacted by the end of free movement, including agriculture, hospitality, and food production now have a huge challenge on their hands to recruit sufficient staff to continue their operations. Whether British and settled EU workers can do this on their own is unlikely, but only time will tell.

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