Seasonal Agricultural Workers

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd March 2017.

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Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 12:00 am, 2nd March 2017

What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the employment of seasonal agricultural workers.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There is a lot of interest in seasonal agricultural labour at the moment. DEFRA Ministers engage regularly with ministerial colleagues at the Home Office and other Departments to discuss the issue of migrant labour in the agriculture sector after we leave the EU. We are aware that the availability of labour is a concern for some sectors of the industry. However, leaving the EU and establishing controlled migration does not mean closing off all immigration; it simply means that we will be able to identify where we have needs and put in place suitable arrangements.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Growers in my constituency are worried about fruit going unpicked not only after we leave the EU, but also this year. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to press the Home Office on this issue, and not only on seasonal agricultural workers after we leave the EU, but also between now and then?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As my hon. Friend may know, I spent 10 years working in the soft fruit industry; indeed, I will know many of the strawberry farmers she represents. I am also aware that the Secretary of State has taken up a kind offer from my hon. Friend to visit and meet some of the farmers there to discuss their concerns. As somebody who ran a soft fruit enterprise employing several hundred people, I can tell my hon. Friend that I do understand the challenges the industry faces.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir SNP Chief Whip

But there is an immediate problem in that many of the fruit farmers in my constituency have already entered into contracts for migrant labour for this coming fruit-picking season. They have been concerned about some reports last week that the Government are considering restricting free movement or introducing work permits when article 50 is triggered. Can the Minister confirm whether that is happening, or give them an assurance that it will not happen and they can fulfil the contracts they have already entered into?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The point that we have been making to the industry when we have met it is that while we remain members of the EU—that is, until we leave, not until we trigger article 50—free movement remains. The feedback I am getting is that most farmers are able to source the labour they need from countries such as Bulgaria and Romania. We will give the industry plenty of notice of what arrangements we intend to put in place after we leave the EU.