Alan Johnson’s maiden Speech to the House

Sun, Jul 1, 2007

maiden speech

Hansard copy of Alan’s maiden speech regarding Trawlermens Compensation…

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 winged 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. 1 Jul 1997 : Column 207 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. 1 Jul 1997 : Column 208 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 from 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.

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