Island skippers feel “betrayed” and are fearful for their futures, after the Home Office backtracked on immigration promises made by Boris Johnson.
The prime minister met Orkney fishermen in July and heard their concerns over UK Government plans to start cutting foreign labour, which is key to the survival of the fishing industry, at the end of the Brexit transition.
Despite making promises on the day and subsequently telling local MP Alistair Carmichael he would instruct Home Secretary Priti Patel to “seize the matter”, the Home Office has now decided there will be no change in policy.
Immigration minister Kevin Foster, in a letter to Mr Carmichael, said skippers – who have been recruiting skilled deckhands from abroad for decades – would have to look locally.
He said: “The UK labour market has changed dramatically due to the economic impacts of the measures necessary to tackle Covid-19.
“Many workers based in the UK now face an uncertain future and need to find new employment opportunities, which the fishing industry could play a key role in providing.”
‘They need foreign crew’
Mr Foster also cited the supposed arrival of British passport holders from Hong Kong as a source of labour – something branded “ridiculous” by Mr Carmichael.
He said: “I don’t think there are many people working for Standard Chartered bank or HSBC in Hong Kong at the moment who are going to come to Britain and want to work as deckhands on fishing boats.
“The fact that they even engage these arguments just shows how little understanding they have of the industry that they’re dealing with.
“The industry have been telling them for years that they need foreign crew and that this is the only way that they will get the crew that they need.”
Mr Carmichael added: “Many skippers will now be feeling betrayed by the prime minister; he flew in, he had his picture taken with some crabs and flew out.
“It doesn’t look now like much of a listening exercise, it just looks like a rather expensive photo call.
“If he wanted to have his picture on a fishing boat, he could have used Photoshop and saved on the air miles.”
‘A big blow to the industry’
The row comes after Ms Patel last month rejected recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee to add fishermen, along with a series of other occupations, to the UK’s shortage occupation list (SOL), which helps migrants get work visas to fill jobs where there are not enough native applications.
Skipper Ronnie Norquoy, who met the prime minister on board his vessel in Stromness in July, has expressed “bitter disappointment” over the decision.
He said: “That letter was a big blow to the industry.
“This is about keeping our businesses going and our keeping industry viable. As one skipper said to me, there’s no point getting our waters back and more quota if we’ve got no crew.
“The reality is, the industry depends on foreign crew and that is why they must be classed as skilled.
“All we are asking is for the government to properly listen to the challenges we face and act so that we can keep afloat.”
Mr Carmichael has now written to the prime minister, asking him to urgently reconsider.
In a letter to Number 10, he said: “I believe that this matter requires a specific intervention on your part in order to improve the outcome for fishermen. The industry expects to expand further after Brexit so this demand for skilled workers is not going away.
“We must listen to the needs of skippers and urgently change the visa system for deckhands.”
The Home Office have been contacted for comment.