HC Deb 01 July 1997 vol 297 cc206-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pope.]

10 pm

Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

As this is my maiden speech, before I come to the subject of the debate, I shall follow the tradition of the House by paying tribute to my predecessor, Stuart Randall, who represented Kingston upon Hull, West for 14 years. Although he began his working life as an apprentice electrician, it does credit to his hard work, determination and foresight that he developed an expertise in information technology that few have matched.

Stuart was working with computers in the early 1960s, and his subsequent experience as a manager and consultant in the banking, steel and motor industries proved an invaluable asset to the work of the House. Despite his deep knowledge of what is still an esoteric subject, he could not be accused of being the proverbial anorak. He is an open and friendly man, who earned the trust and respect of his constituents—many of whom have written to the local press recently to record their deep appreciation of his work as a dedicated constituency Member.

I do not have time to pay tribute to all my other predecessors, but a mark of the eminence of my city is that other Hull Members include the poet Andrew Marvell, who pleaded to his coy mistress by the tide of Humber. His couplet But at my back I always hear Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near should be a maxim for speakers in the Chamber. William Wilberforce was another predecessor of mine, who was born in Hull.

I am proud to represent the people of Hull, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). We form a utilitarian trio: the seafarer, the teacher and the postman. The phrase "workers by hand or by brain" comes to mind—only to be quickly suppressed. We are all enjoying the full fruits of our industry.

I am equally proud to represent the town of Hessle, which was formerly part of the constituency of the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran). When my predecessor made his maiden speech, he said that the Humber bridge, which connects with the north bank of the river at Hessle, was not in his constituency. Rectifying that involved either moving the bridge or extending the constituency. I am delighted that the latter option was taken.

Although Hull is rightly famous for its splendid university, its rugby league football team, its publicly owned telephone company—local calls of unlimited duration cost 4p—and its magnificent 13th-century Holy Trinity church, to most people it is synonymous with seafaring. Fishing gave Hull its spirit, its character and, in the main, its livelihood. Of only four distant water ports in this country, Hull was the largest, and was unique in that its boats fished nowhere other than in distant Arctic waters.

Distant water fishing is the most arduous and hazardous of occupations. Working most commonly on three-week trips, with 36 hours in port before they set off again, the men were on deck, exposed to temperatures as low as minus 40 deg throughout their 18-hour shifts. In winter, they were constantly involved in struggles to prevent their vessels from icing up. Too much top ice, which could form within minutes, would capsize a trawler. The accident mortality rate was 14 times that of coal mining. In the 150 years from 1835 to 1987, some 900 Hull boats were lost at sea. Few crew members survived.

There is no distant water fishing industry worth speaking of any more. The 3,000 men who carried out that desperately hard and dangerous work lost their jobs, primarily as a direct result of the previous Government's decision not to accept the generous quotas that were offered when Iceland extended its fishing limit to 200 miles 21 years ago. They are the true casualties of the so-called cod wars.

I appreciate that the House is not the place for hyperbole, but I must say that I have never come across a worse case of industrial injustice than the way in which trawlermen, their families and communities were subsequently treated. The issue has been raised countless times in the House by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister when he was in opposition, by my predecessor, Stuart Randall, by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), and by Opposition Members, because this is not a party political issue.

Both Government and Opposition have had a hand in creating the trawlermen's plight. However, until now a Labour Government have not had an opportunity to resolve it. The Conservative Government made an attempt to solve the problem, but, for reasons which I shall explain later, it was insufficient and inadequate. First, I need to complete the background. Although the trawler owners received generous payments and decommissioning grants, the trawlermen received nothing. There were no assistance programmes, no retraining initiatives and no redundancy compensation.

With nothing but broken promises and expressions of sympathy by the Government and various agencies, the burden of correcting the injustice has fallen to the fishermen themselves, who set up the British Fishermen's Association for that purpose. The Minister will be aware of how this small organisation, financed and run entirely by the men, has doggedly pursued their cause. He will know how they won their case at an industrial tribunal in 1987 on the issue of redundancy pay, only to lose on appeal, and how, in 1993, a further judgment from the Court of Appeal on a different case finally supported the trawlermen's contention that they were not and never had been casual workers.

In response, the Conservative Government established an ex gratia scheme which could belatedly have provided, if not a generous, at least an honourable settlement of the issue. However, that Government insisted that, first, the scheme applied to those who had been misdirected by departmental officials and as a result did not pursue their cases to an industrial tribunal, and, secondly, that payments were based on the necessity of having worked for the same employer for two years.

The first criterion excluded those few fishermen, 17 in total, who had pursued their case to a tribunal and lost before the Court of Appeal ruling in 1993. The second criterion failed to recognise the unique nature of the industry and the way that ships were crewed. Trawlermen worked in what was called "the scheme", which was operated by the shipowners and the then Department of Employment, and one of its objectives was to ensure that there was an adequate number of qualified fishermen readily available for all companies participating in the scheme.

When a trawler was tied up, perhaps for a refit, the trawlermen were entitled to dole money and would remain in the scheme. However, if the Department of Employment decided, in conjunction with a participating company, that it would be appropriate for a trawlerman to cover a vacancy on a trawler that belonged to a different company, the trawlerman was compelled to accept or had his benefit stopped. For that and many other reasons relating to the industry, discontinuity of employer was a fact of life.

Those criteria have denied many trawlermen any compensation. For others, the payments have been derisory. For example, one ex-trawlerman who wrote to the previous Prime Minister explained that he had spent 35 years at sea as a distant water trawlerman. However, because of the few occasions in that time that he had worked continuously for two years for the same company, his payment was £450.

There is no legal redress, but there is a political solution. The ex gratia payment scheme can be reopened and reconstituted on a basis that recognises natural justice and the realities of that perilous occupation. The scheme was not inadequate because available finances were limited. The Department of Employment confirmed in a letter to the BFA that there was no limit on the number of payments or on the total cash available. In any case, although I recognise and support the prudent approach of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to whom we will all listen with interest tomorrow, the amount of money needed to rectify the problem would not even register in the decimal roundings of the Red Book.

It is difficult in such a short debate to explain all the arguments surrounding such a complex issue. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree to meet a delegation front the BFA to discuss the matter further. The House owed a debt of gratitude to the distant water trawlermen for their work when the industry was flourishing. We now owe them justice and some peace of mind, having contributed to the loss of their livelihood.

10.10 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) on securing an Adjournment debate on this important subject. It is still a central issue in Grimsby, Hull, Fleetwood and Aberdeen, where people have a long-standing grievance.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, too, on his maiden speech, which shows the vigour and determination with which he will fight in the interests of Hull, West and Hessle and, in particular—I hope—of the fishermen, retired fishermen and redundant trawlermen there. The work was begun by his predecessor, and people in Grimsby, Hull and Fleetwood have always co-operated. I was grateful, therefore, that my hon. Friend offered me the opportunity to add something to his effective and powerful speech. It promises well for the future representation of Hull, West and Hessle.

This is an important subject. I do not think that my hon. Friend was being at all controversial in raising it. The fishermen have a real and oppressive grievance, and to raise it is not to depart from the non-controversy rule of maiden speeches. It is nothing more than a statement of the obvious truth.

Fishing was probably the worst and most dangerous job. The death and injury rates were far worse than those in mining. Fishermen were exposed to extreme conditions, particularly around Iceland, in the bitter northern waters around Norway, and further around still. It was an extremely dangerous and tough job, which was brought abruptly to an end—through no fault of the fishermen—effectively by a political decision to extend limits to 200 miles, which excluded them from Iceland, led to a reduction of effort in Norwegian waters and sounded the death knell of the distant water fleet. Those brave men were suddenly thrown on the scrap heap. Their treatment was the worst that has been meted out to any group of workers in the history of modern industrial Britain.

We had a long struggle. My hon. Friend mentioned the efforts of the BFA, which have been extremely important in Grimsby, Hull and Fleetwood. All people have been working together for a common purpose. We had enormous help from the Humberside law centre and from Humphrey Forrest, who found the formula that proved that fishermen were employed, not casual workers, as they had been treated.

At the end, the fishermen received basic redundancy pay—nothing more than the legislation entitled them to. Even then, as my hon. Friend pointed out, categories of people were left out of the basic redundancy compensation. People who could not prove two years' continuous employment with one employer did not receive any redundancy, yet the nature of the industry was that people moved from employer to employer. They were still fishermen. They were still working for the owners association. They were just changing, as people did, to another vessel. That was construed as the end of the contract with one employer and the beginning of a contract with another. Even though they had been, as my hon. Friend said, 30 years in fishing, in that dangerous job, they were still treated as casual unless they had more than two years with one employer.

The people who took their cases to a tribunal were excluded from the ex gratia payment. There were also late applicants. Indeed, I have heard from several. In fishing communities, word inevitably gets around slowly. There were those who emigrated. There were those who work in Spain, Australia and New Zealand. There are the people who died, whose widows and families want to claim the compensation. The Conservative Government simply did not allow enough time for claims to be processed and for news to get around. It is right that this matter be reopened and that we have another look at the people who were excluded from ex gratia payments. It is nothing but minimum fairness.

Secondly, large sums of money were paid to the owners as fishing in distant waters ran down. It runs to scores of millions of pounds. Some claims were devious, to say the least. The Public Accounts Committee had a field day proving some of the scandals and scams that were developed between 1983 to 1986 to claim money for the owners. Where did that money go? That is the question that fishermen ask, because none of it went to them. It was intended for the industry, but the fishermen got nothing. The owners pocketed the money. They did not put it back into fishing. There is a case for an inquiry to find out what happened to that money and why none of it went to the fishermen, who got no compensation whatever.

Thirdly, it is not as if the fishermen were treated in the same way as car workers, coal miners or steel workers, all of whom get compensation for the loss of their job—for the death of an industry in this case. The fishermen got absolutely nothing. There is a certainly a moral case—a legal case is more difficult to prove—for considering compensation for these men.

Fourthly, there is the problem of pensions. The men were in the Humber fishermen's scheme, or the trawl fishermen's scheme later on. The payments they received from that were, in many cases, lump sums—perhaps a couple, three hundred or four hundred quid. The payments were extremely small. That is all they got. What happened to the money that was paid into the pension schemes? We need an inquiry into that. We are trying to make headway with the pensions ombudsman and the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, but it is a long, slow job to prove individual cases. Again, there is an outstanding injustice there.

My hon. Friend's plea tonight, which I echo, and which, I am sure, will be echoed by fishermen in both ports, is simple: a fair deal for the fishermen, even at this late stage. They lost their jobs under the last Labour Government. When fishing in Icelandic waters stopped, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: We intend, as a Government, to do all we can to avoid hardship to those concerned … We shall discuss with the unions and employers the feasibility of an arrangement for compensation for those fishermen directly affected by the settlement".—[Official Report, 28 June 1976; Vol. 914, c. 27.] He added that it had been agreed in principle that a special scheme would be needed.

There was never any special scheme. There was never any compensation. There was never any retraining. There was never any of the benefits that were held out hopefully to the fishermen when fishing in Icelandic waters finished. They have been left without compensation for all this time. It is a crying scandal, about which we should do something now.

This scandal needs to be looked at by the new Labour Government, who are more sensitive—and rightly, too—to the claims of the fishermen. We need to discuss it with the delegation that my hon. Friend asked for. I am delighted he did. I hope that the Minister will concede. It needs to be looked at by an inquiry. In the four ports concerned, there are no more than 5,000 fishermen at most. They need justice. It is time to give them justice. It is more than time for justice.

10.18 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian McCartney)

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for their speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle on his choice of subject for today's debate on the Adjournment, and I am pleased to be able to respond for the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle is not only a personal friend but has made a fine maiden speech. As a former seaman myself, I found that many of his remarks struck a chord. He spoke eloquently about the harsh environment in which seamen have operated and in which they continue to operate.

My hon Friend also spoke powerfully about the regrettable loss of employment resulting from the sharp downturn in the distant water fishing industry, which occurred particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the United Kingdom was excluded from Icelandic fishing grounds. I join him in paying tribute to the sterling efforts and achievements of the many former fishermen who suffered because of that decision.

I and my colleagues in government fully realise the extremely arduous conditions that those fishermen had to face in what was then, and remains, one of the most difficult and demanding ways in which to earn a living. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle that, as an hon. Member representing a coalfield community, I have every sympathy for those who lost their livelihood because of economic factors beyond their control. Of course the fishing industry has by no means been alone in suffering such problems—coalfield, steel and textile communities have suffered also—although it has doubtless been hit more severely than most. No one can challenge that fact.

I should say at the beginning of my reply that general policy on the fishing industry is a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Many of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle in his speech—including those on compensatory payments to vessel owners, which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby also mentioned—are really more appropriate for my MAFF colleagues to consider. I will certainly ensure that his concerns are brought to their attention.

The specific aspect that falls fairly and squarely within my own ambit as Minister with responsibility for labour market issues is that of the ex gratia payment arrangements that operated during 1994 and 1995—initially by the Department of Employment and then, following a machinery of government change, in July 1995, by the Department of Trade and Industry. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I confine most of my remarks to that subject.

I certainly realise the strength of feeling on the issue, and I hope that it will be helpful if I say now that I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle and a delegation from the British Fishermen's Association, as he requested, to consider any further points that they wish to make to me.

My hon. Friend has already explained the general background to the exgratia payment arrangements. In the late 1970s and early 1980s. when many distant water trawlermen became unemployed, there was widespread belief that the intermittent, voyage-by-voyage nature of their work meant that they could not have accrued the two years' continuous service needed to qualify for statutory redundancy payments from their former employers. It was open to them to seek to challenge that belief before industrial tribunals and, if necessary, on appeal before the higher courts.

Many of those fishermen, however, failed to make a claim within the relevant statutory time limits, and consequently lost the opportunity to do so. In some cases, their failure was regrettably due to misdirection by local Employment Department officials, who had told them—in good faith, but nevertheless incorrectly—that they could not pursue their entitlement in that manner.

In 1983, Ministers of the previous Administration agreed that the Government would make ex gratia payments to anyone who could have been disadvantaged by such misdirection, provided that they could establish that they had in fact had an underlying entitlement to a statutory redundancy payment. That question was finally settled only in October 1993, when the Court of Appeal's judgment in the case of Atkinson and Dickinson v. Hellyer Brothers Ltd. made it clear that the former fishermen could in certain circumstances be regarded as having been continuously employed, and could therefore in principle have qualified for statutory redundancy payments.

The Employment Department acted to establish suitable arrangements for making ex gratia payments. The arrangements were well publicised, through interested Members, the British Fishermen's Association and the local press in fishing areas. In line with the underlying rationale of the arrangements, eligibility was restricted to former fishermen who had met the conditions to qualify for a statutory redundancy payment and whose situation indicated that they could have been disadvantaged by misdirection by officials. Some 9,000 payments were made in all during the two years that the arrangements remained in effect, amounting to a total of over £13.6 million.

A number of criticisms have been made of the ex gratia payment arrangements. The main ones that I have noted are: that some former fishermen were excluded; that payments were made in some cases to individuals who were not entitled to them; that the payments were inadequate in terms of their amounts; and that the arrangements were closed prematurely.

I shall endeavour to take up all these points this evening. If I am not able to do so because of a shortage of time, the issues can be discussed further when I meet my hon. Friend and his delegation. I shall be happy during the course of that discussion to receive other information that he might bring forward about the four matters to which I have just referred. I shall consider them in a full, honest and open way.

I must emphasise that the principal responsibility for making statutory redundancy payments to employees rests with their employers. The Department of Trade and Industry generally has no role to play, except where that responsibility would otherwise be unfulfilled—for example, in insolvency cases, where the redundancy payments service protects employees' interests by making payments on the employers' behalf and subsequently seeking to recover the money from them, or their assets.

As I have explained, the ex gratia payment arrangements were set up for the specific and limited purpose of compensating individuals who had lost the opportunity to pursue their statutory rights against their employers in circumstances where this could have been due to misdirection by departmental officials.

The arrangements were never intended to compensate former fishermen more generally for the loss of employment in their industry, or to act as a measure of recognition for their overall service to the industry. My hon. Friend clearly considers that they should have had such aims, but they did not, and I think that almost all the criticisms that have been made have stemmed from that fact.

I have already touched on the reasons why certain former fishermen were excluded from the arrangements. In some cases, it was because they had clearly not suffered the misdirection for which ex gratia payments were intended to compensate. This applied where they had made an industrial tribunal claim or had received a statutory redundancy payment at the time of their dismissal. In other cases, it was because, even with the benefit of the Court of Appeal's decision, the former fishermen in question would not have qualified for a statutory redundancy payment in any event. This applied where they had worked for no one employer for two years or more at a time, and so still did not have the necessary qualifying period of service, or where they had been subject to some other exclusion.

I recognise that many former fishermen who lost cases at industrial tribunals did not appeal to the higher courts, and so failed to establish an entitlement. They were free to do so, however, and unlike in those instances where no industrial tribunal claim was made, there can be no suggestion that they were misdirected by departmental officials as to the possibility of pursuing their entitlement by way of legal action.

It has been alleged that, in some instances, ex gratia payments were made to individuals who were not entitled to them. I have been assured by my officials that each claim was scrutinised carefully, and that none was paid unless there were fishing or national insurance records to back it up.

Each claimant was asked to sign a statement that he understood that legal proceedings would be taken against him if he knowingly made a false declaration. Full investigative action has been taken in any instance where fraud has been suspected. If my hon. Friend or members of the British Fishermen's Association could provide evidence of any specific cases where they believe that payments have been made to those not entitled to them, I should be pleased to consider it in due course.

A further bone of contention has been that the arrangements were discontinued after two years, at the end of 1995. It seems to me, though, that it is impracticable for such arrangements to be maintained indefinitely, and that two years was not an unreasonable period to allow for claims in this instance. The arrangements compare favourably with the usual six-month and maximum one-year time limits for statutory redundancy payments claims, and with the various time limits for state benefit claims, most of which have been about one year and none as long as the two years allowed in this instance.

As I have mentioned, the arrangements had been well publicised. Indeed, they were common knowledge in port areas, as I am sure my hon. Friend would accept. Departmental officials made every effort to ensure that former fishermen and their families had a reasonable opportunity to claim. The closing date for claims was similarly well publicised. I understand that, by the end of 1995, new claims had for some time been running at a low and steadily declining level. For example, only about 20 a week were received in September 1995, and that had fallen to about 10 per week by November 1995.

Having considered the matter carefully, it seems that the decision to discontinue the arrangements was taken on sound grounds of practicability and good financial management, and was implemented in a reasonable manner. I should add that my officials still give careful consideration to any out-of-time claims that are received, and are prepared to admit them in cases where it is clear that special circumstances made it impossible for them to be submitted before the closing date.

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the details of individual cases, but the House may be interested to know that four out-of-time claims have been approved in such circumstances. That is out of a total of 20 that have been received in the 18 months since the arrangements were discontinued.

Throughout my speech, I have sought to emphasise that the DTI's ex gratia payment arrangements had a specific and limited purpose, and that they were never intended to act as a general measure of compensation for the loss of employment in the fishing industry as a whole. I therefore look forward—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.