HC Deb 13 April 1984 vol 58 cc683-90 12.59 pm
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I wish to raise the question of redundancy payments for fishermen. I am anxious to find out in particular what the Government's plans are to make redundancy payments available. I am also anxious to press the Government to tell us as soon as possible whether they intend to proceed with their plans, bearing in mind the impact that the common fisheries policy is having on the fleet. The fleet is still in decline, and people are still being made redundant. I believe that there is an authentic problem in the industry.

Immense changes have taken place, which started at the time of the cod war, with particular effect on the deep water fleet. We have had the common fisheries policy, and in the short term we have the restructuring of the fleet which is beginning to emerge as a result of the common fisheries policy. So far there have been a number of decommissioning grants for the owners of vessels, but the people who have served the industry so loyally have had absolutely nothing. Statutes and other technical matters prevent compensation being given to these people.

A matter of key concern is the casual nature of the industry. When people go to sea on trawlers, they sign on as they arrive at the vessel, and when they come back from sea they sign off. When they do that, they are regarded as not having been in continuous employment. Even if they were to sign on the same day with the same company, or on the same vessel, they would be deemed not to have been in continuous employment. This leads to people being unable to establish the minimum two years of continuous employment to qualify for redundancy. It is absurd that such a situation should exist in 1984.

I feel strongly that these anomalies should be overcome without delay, particularly since the fleets are still in decline. Another anomaly arises from the fact that people who have worked in the industry have paid into the redundancy fund through their stamp, but, because they are casual workers, they cannot get the money that they have paid into the fund or that their employer has paid into the fund on their behalf. That is outrageous. I have done some research. Although I do not say that the figure is an absolute one that we should set in concrete, I believe that approximately £330,000 in the Government's redundancy fund is owed to people in Hull, and that assumes a conservative investment policy for the fund. I believe that the money is there.

The EEC has had an immense impact on the industry. No industry in the country has been affected so greatly by the EEC policy as the fishing industry. The coal and steel industries have been restructured, but the country's fishing industry has not been restructured to cater for the change. I do not regard the provision of a few decommissioning grants as restructuring. If an industry is to be restructured and geared up to fit in with the new common fisheries policy, the people involved must clearly be taken into account as well, especially as this is a labour-intensive industry. Workers in the steel and coal industries have had incomparable treatment. It is a matter of urgency now that we bring fishermen into line with them.

One of my constituents who until recently worked for BUT in Hull as a trawlerman received £385 from that company, equivalent to three weeks' wages, after serving as a trawlerman for 19 years. I ask hon. Members to compare that with the money given by the Government, through Brussels, for decommissioning vessels. Owners have been receiving about £400 for every gross registered tonne. The Government appear to regard a man who has served the industry for 19 years as of less value than one gross registered tonne of rusty trawler.

The number of people in the industry has declined dramatically. In Hull just a few years ago there were about 10,000. Today that is down to about 1,000. There were more than 100 deep-water vessels. Now we are clown to virtually none.

One problem is that the skills of the people in the industry are non-transferable. It is difficult for them to adapt to other jobs with the skills that they have acquired. Therefore, there is a need for special treatment for these people.

In addition, people have been very loyal to their industry. They have been loyal to their country as well bearing in mind the way in which they served during the war. They are very hard working. They work in appalling conditions which are not just uncomfortable but dangerous, and they have very low pay. All that they have received by way of compensation following the changes that have come upon the industry is a kick in the teeth from the Government. Their jobs have been snatched from them and their livelihoods have been destroyed, as have their communities. Redundancy payments are a key factor in helping them to rebuild their lives after all these changes. So far, they have had nothing.

I am staggered by the Government's failure to take action on all the anomalies to which I have referred. The matter has been raised on numerous occasions by hon. Members on both sides of the House. On 18 January I wrote to the Minister of State, Department of Employment referring to a constituent of mine, Mr. S. Heywood of 105, Hawthorne avenue, Hull. He had worked in the industry for 35 years with BUT. He claims that he was in continuous employment except between November 1978 and the following May, although he was contracted and received payments in that period. Eventually he was made redundant in 1979. I asked the Minister to investigate the case with a view to making retrospective redundancy payments. I wrote: since so many fishermen have been so seriously affected by the decline of the UK fishing industry, would the Government consider introducing legislation which will enable these people to be reasonably compensated after contributing so much to the UK fishing industry and economy. The response from the Minister on 9 February this year was that the possibility of a special Government-financed scheme for redundant fishermen would raise difficulties since similar claims could be advanced on behalf of other industries in decline. He went on: it would require separate legislation which would be a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That was a piece of buck passing and an absolute disgrace.

What are the difficulties to which the Minister referred? How much money are we talking about? It is peanuts. Just now I referred to what had been given to the steel industry. It may be argued that that was done by the British Steel Corporation. It was not. After the 1974 investment programme,' British Steel was running at a deficit. To all intents and purposes, all that aid was provided by the Exchequer. I hope that the Minister will tell us exactly how much money would be involved.

I then wrote to the Minster of State at MAFF asking him to provide some mechanism for compensating fishermen who had lost their jobs. He replied on 7 March: I realise that some fishermen will be disappointed that the finance made available from Community funds for restructuring the industry did not include any provision for redundancy payments. We have considered very carefully suggestions that we should nonetheless take action of our own so as to be able to compensate those fishermen whose terms of service prevent their qualifying for payments under the existing employment legislation. Our considered view is, however, that it would be inapproprate to seek to make special provision for future redundancies in the fishing industry at this very late stage". I draw attention to the final words. Is it suggested that the Minister was unaware of the problem before that? I remind the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) raised the matter more than a year ago in March 1983 and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) sought to deal with it in a private Member's Bill which was defeated the same year.

We are extremely disappointed at the Goverment's attitude towards the fishermen. The Government were told about the anomalies, but they have done absolutely nothing. Clearly they are not interested in fishermen.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in 1978, when redundancy was not applicable, the Labour Government made £250,000 available for compensation to fishermen for difficulties arising out of the conflict with Iceland? The Treasury has already crossed the bridge of precedent. We ask the present Government to do the same.

Mr. Randall

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that valuable point. The Government seem to have no interest whatever in eliminating the anomalies that I have described relating to terms and conditions of employment and the casual labour aspect of the industry which prevents the fishermen from claiming reasonable redundancy benefits under the law.

Why did the Government not raise the issue of compensation to fishermen in their discussions in Brussels about decommissioning grants for the industry? There was considerable compensation for the owners of the vessels, but the men who worked on them received nothing. Alternatively, did the Government raise the matter but fail yet again to get a reasonable deal in negotiations with the EEC? The country wants answers to those questions. The fishermen of Hull want to know exactly where they stand and they are very bitter about the way in which the Government have treated them.

Finally, I commend two proposals to the House. First, will the Government introduce a compensation scheme for the workers so savagely affected by redundancies in this industry? Secondly, will the Government give some of the money contributed to the redundancy fund to the fishermen who have been so seriously affected? That is only fair and equitable. I hope that the Minister will give specific answers on those two points.

1.13 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

With the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) and the Minister, I wish to make a brief contribution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on all the work that he has done on this issue. Members of Parliament for Humberside have waged a long and at times bitterly frustrating campaign on it. It is essential to keep up the pressure, to spread the information and to keep the issue at the forefront where it deserves to be.

It is also essential that we keep to a responsible middle course and keep our eyes on what should be the main issue. Social Democratic candidates in Hull and Grimsby have used the issue in a politically irresponsible and unforgivable way. No Social Democratic Members are here today, but candidates have raised false hopes in an attempt to secure support. They have whipped up a fever of expectation, which is bound to be disappointed, in an attempt to alienate redundant fishermen from Members of Parliament and the Transport and General Workers Union who serve their interests and have worked hard on their behalf. The Social Democratic candidates have spread false information. For example, they have argued that legal aid is available for tribunal cases when it is not. They have deliberately misrepresented and exaggerated what they have been told at meetings by Ministers. I took a deputation to see a Minister and was horrified by what the Social Democrats told the press afterwards. What they said bore no relation to what the Minister had said. It is essential to maintain a responsible stance and not to behave in a politically opportunist and vicious way.

We should be clear about the issues. Any recently redundant fishermen should apply immediately to their employers for compensation. The three recent cases from Hamling's show that when there has been some form of retainer and something more than the usual casual relationship between employer and fisherman, there are prospects of getting redundancy pay. Most of the Hamling cases have been brought before a tribunal by the TGWU and have yet to be decided. However, there is a possibility of compensation when there is a retainer.

Other cases should be taken up with Members of Parliament. I have taken a couple of cases to the ombudsman, although without success. People have not applied for compensation because they have been under the impression that, because they are casual workers, redundancy payments would not be available to them. It was the Department's responsibility to dissipate that impression, but it did not do so. We need to be aware of cases of people being told by officials of the Department locally, directly or indirectly, that there is no point in applying for redundancy payments as they are not eligible.

It is essential that, at this late stage, the Government enforce a decasualisation scheme and impose a redundancy scheme on the industry. It is regrettable that the owners have refused to make a joint application. I am horrified that the laying-up and restructuring scheme makes no concession to the fishermen. The money simply goes to the owners. We have been unable to secure a response from the EEC on that issue. I should have thought that it also has a responsibility. There will be more redundancies in the industry. The numbers involved might not be as great as those which have already occurred, but it is essential that people be treated with justice and that in this last stage of the rundown, we do not make the same unforgivable mistakes. It is important that the Government should do justice to the fishermen and trawlermen who have been made redundant.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West on bringing home the point that £300,000 has been paid into the redundancy fund on behalf of fishermen. The money is morally theirs. They are entitled to it as it was contributed for their future and redundancies. It is ridiculous to say that the money has gone and that they are not entitled to it. There must be an inquiry into how they can be compensated for the loss of their jobs when they have contributed a lifetime to the industry and when they have seen coal industry workers, car workers and workers in many other rundown industries receive massive compensation. The fishermen—the bloody infantry of the industry—have been treated contemptuously. The big owners have now moved out of the industry and become landowners and pub owners and involved in all types of alternative businesses. They have made their pile and run. The fishermen are left to carry the burden, and it is the Government's responsibility to set up an inquiry, now that it is clearly the only way forward, into how this money can be paid to people who are morally entitled to it.

1.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Alan Clark)

As I have already replied to one debate, I ask for the leave of the House to reply to this one.

I am glad that we have another opportunity to consider the problems of the fishing industry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) on securing this debate. I appreciate the attendance of his colleagues, the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I know that they have been tenacious in expressing their constituents' interest in this matter.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby about SDP candidates in his constituency. All of us who are elected to this place are familiar with the various ploys that people who have no real prospect of election unscrupulously take advantage of, and how little regard they have to truth or responsibility. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman in his sufferings from that.

I present the apologies of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment who, as hon. Members know, normally deals ably with these matters. Unfortunately, he had already made critical engagements which were arranged before the subject of this Adjournment debate was known and I hope that hon. Members will allow me to reply.

The issue is whether redundant fishermen are being unfairly excluded from the redundancy payments scheme, either because of the technicality about the semi-casual nature of their work or because those who have a sound claim have been wrongly advised by Department of Employment officials and others and their claim is now out of time. These are fundamental points, but before I deal with them it may be useful if I say a little about the background to the debate.

It was on 18 March 1983 that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment responded to a similar debate opened by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. I know that since then my hon. Friend has met and written to a number of hon. Members and spokesmen of the trawler fishing industry. As recently as 10 April, he wrote to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West. The hon. Gentleman has become a Member of the House since that first debate and I shall recap on the main difficulties that have been identified in our discussions.

Trawler fishermen generally work on articles for a single trip or a succession of trips over a period not longer than six months. When they return from trips they often sign on for unemployment benefit, and this disjointed pattern of employment has led to their being regarded as casual workers. Doubts have consequently arisen as to whether they satisfy the qualifying conditions for redundancy payments, and in particular the requirement for at least two years' continuous service with a single employer. As a result, until recently, many fishermen and their employers never even considered that redundancy payments might be due and as a result did not apply.

In the past 12 months there has developed a much greater concern about fishermen's redundancy entitlements because the recession in the industry, to which hon. Members have drawn our attention, has regrettably reduced the amount of work that is available, and also because the collapse of the Thomas Hamling company has led to a number of claims for direct payments from the redundancy fund being submitted for consideration by the Department. There are two main problems about some of the applications: first, many of them may not meet the continuity of employment conditions, and, secondly, many of them are out of time.

I stress that at no time has my Department ever suggested that fishermen could not qualify for statutory redundancy payments. There is no doubt that, with the special exception of share fishermen, who count as self-employed, the provisions apply to fishermen on the same basis as to all other employees.

The problem has been that the nature of fishermen's contracts makes it difficult for them to meet the two-year continuity of service condition. However, the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 offers a remedy for untypical working patterns, in the form of a section 96 exemption order, provided that the two sides of the industry can agree a scheme that meets appropriate criteria, enabling successive periods of employment to be aggregated.

That is, in the first instance, a matter for the parties and so far no mutually acceptable scheme has been forthcoming. If the two sides can succeed in getting together, my officials will certainly do all that they can to assist them and to ensure that the trawler fishermen can benefit.

As regards the legal status of fishermen's redundancy claims generally, there have emerged in recent months a number of grey areas, which my Department would like to have clarified by courts and tribunals as soon as possible. As hon. Members know, and as my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in his letter of 10 April, it is not possible for him to comment on a number of those cases until they have been settled by the courts.

It remains our view that when a fisherman sails successively with different companies he cannot preserve continuity of service. However, where there is a record of years of service with the same company, even though consisting of separate voyage contracts or articles for a fixed period, such as six months, it is possible that the man could be held to have a single contract of indefinite duration or that, even if he were dismissed each time, the breaks would be treated as temporary interruptions.

A further ambiguity is whether a man can be properly regarded as dismissed at the end of a voyage, or whether the contract is discharged by performance, in which case no question of redundancy can arise.

Those considerations have recently been highlighted by a major insolvency in the industry, the Hull-based freezer trawler company of Thomas Hamling Limited. Because the company is insolvent, any claims for redundancy payments lie against the Department, and about 100 applications have so far been referred for adjudication.

Also relevant is a recent decision by the House of Lords in the case of Ford v. Warwickshire county council to the effect that a succession of fixed-term contracts served by a teacher could be deemed to run continuously. The length of time employed in relation to the length of time between employments was thought crucial in that case.

A number of tribunal test cases are pending on these questions and, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State explained when he wrote to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall), there is little that he or I can add on the legal issues until they have been heard.

Another point worries the hon. Gentleman, his hon. Friends who have met Ministers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), who met my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Mr. Randall

Why did the Department withdraw the Miller case from the tribunal by paying Mr. Miller out of the central redundancy fund? What precedent was it trying to establish, or was it trying to make sure that a precedent was not established?

Mr. Clark

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman because, for reasons that he will appreciate, I cannot answer that question now. However, I will ensure that he receives as soon as possible a letter setting out the grounds for our action.

Some fishermen say that they did not pursue their claims within the requisite time limits when their employment ended because they were under the erroneous impression that no fisherman could ever be eligible for a redundancy payment, although that has never been the advice of my Department.

When my hon. Friend the Minister of State met a deputation on 22 November, he undertook to consider, out of time and on an ex gratia basis, any authenticated case of a claimant whose claim would apparently have been well-founded being given misleading advice by local departmental staff. My hon. Friend was at pains to stress that we are tightly constrained by the law in these matters and cannot consider claims outside the legal time limits unless there is clear evidence of misdirection by staff. Plainly we cannot assume responsibility for wrong advice from other quarters, such as employers, union officials or other employees among whom this unjustified rumour was circulating.

In later correspondence with the British Fishermen's Association, my hon. Friend clarified the criteria which he0 would expect to be satisfied before considering making an ex gratia payment, and it may be helpful if I repeat to the House what was agreed. It was that the applicant or his employer should approach a Department of Employment office about his redundancy payments claim within six, or at most 12, months; that written evidence thereof shall generally be required; and that in any event, any such evidence will not qualify for payment those who, in the opinion of the Department of Employment, would not have succeeded had they pursued their claim to a tribunal.