I beg to move,
That this House
recognises that seasonal migrant workers make a substantial and positive impact on the UK economy;
believes that easy access to seasonal migrant workers is vital for economic prosperity;
and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals to allow businesses to continue to access seasonal migrant workers from EU and non-EU countries.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for accepting the application for this important debate, and I thank the right hon. and hon. Members who supported it. I also thank all those in the British agricultural community who have campaigned relentlessly on this issue, and I am grateful for the work that has been carried out by the all-party group on fruit and vegetable farmers, of which I am a vice chair.
Madam Deputy Speaker, £1.2 billion was the value of soft fruit production—
Is the hon. Lady not a little surprised that given that the word “agriculture” is in the title—a bit of a hint there—this debate is not being responded to by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and that a Home Office Minister is responding instead? Is it not important that we get DEFRA to put on the record what its position is on this crucial issue?
The sector has grown by 131% over the past two decades. These incredible figures are proof of all the skill and talent, and the industrious nature, of the British farmer. My constituency reveals the true scale of production that is now possible. Despite being less than 3% of the country, we certainly pull our weight, producing more than 30% of Scotland’s soft fruit. The noble strawberry is symbolic of Angus, and it is a wonderful experience for my constituents to be able to buy a punnet on their doorstep of fruit that has grown in the surrounding countryside.
Given this sizeable industry, within the first two months of being elected I personally toured all the major fruit farms in Angus. I was greeted with a product with a taste and flavour that would be the envy of anyone, but I was also confronted with something else: a sector that was struggling. Although automation and modernisation are at the centre of the British farming sector, as they should be in any area that wishes to thrive, certain aspects of getting a crop from the field to the supermarket shelf will still require a human touch and may always rely, to a degree, on manual labour. At this time, the picking and harvesting of soft fruit crops can only be done effectively by hand. The picking of crops requires efficiency, endurance, and a deceptive level of knowledge. It is not a simple task. The whole production process is not down to unskilled labour, as is often said, but rather a skill gleaned through years of working on farms. Without question, this is tough work. I remember as a child a day of fruit picking being sold to me as a fun day out, but as soon as the sick feeling overcame me from eating too many raspberries, the novelty soon wore off and the labour intensity of the role shone through.
My hon. Friend has brought my childhood to the forefront of my memory, because I was brought up in Forfar in her constituency. There, we used to spend at least half of our summer holidays picking strawberries and then raspberries, and in October we would have the tattie holidays, picking the potato crop. That was how we grew up and learned how to work. I congratulate her on the case she is making that this is a skillset that is developed—sometimes it is even genetically passed through generations—and we should be protecting it. She is making a convincing case. Does she also believe there is also scope for investment in technology—mechanisation and automation—in this area?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is incredibly important that we look into automation, but I do not see how the soft fruit sector could adapt to full automation; there will always be a degree of manual labour.
About 80,000 men and women currently make the journey across to the UK to take part in this process. It is estimated that by 2019 this figure will rise to 95,000, due to the expansion of many farms, as well as the elongated season that arises from the innovative farming techniques we now see. Make no mistake: this is seasonal work and there is no need for pickers all year round. They are required for the preparation, planting and, in higher numbers, the harvesting. Precision is key; there can be no delays in farming. Being too late or too early has catastrophic effects on the quality and subsequent price—
The hon. Lady mentioned the duration of the season, but how long does she think that duration is? It has been put to me that because of polytunnels the season can be as long as nine months.
There are some other sectors where it is much more difficult to have such an extended season, such as in the new vineyards we have in the south-east of England and in south Wales. It is a very short season there and quick decisions have to be made as to when the right day is to start picking if we are to get the best products out of the grapes. Does the hon. Lady therefore accept that we are going to have to have a proper system, as a matter of urgency, if we are not to see all those grapes, and the soft fruit, go to waste?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I absolutely agree with what he says. Later in my speech I will address what I believe that system should look like to ensure that all sectors of agriculture can take full advantage.
In the past few years the recruitment of these 80,000 seasonal agricultural workers has become increasingly difficult. This is not a problem that is unique to the UK; it is being encountered across farming communities throughout Europe. In the past, Britain’s seasonal workers typically came from eastern Europe. High unemployment and lower living standards in these regions meant that the possibility of seasonal work in Britain, regardless of its brief nature, was appealing. According to data produced by the World Bank, unemployment in Romania, Bulgaria and Poland in 2000 stood at 7%, 16.2% and 16.3% respectively, whereas in 2017 the figures were 5.9%, 6% and 5.1%. I am sure everyone in the Chamber will agree that the prosperity now enjoyed by these states should be applauded and is testimony to their own economic endeavours. However, the impact that this success has had on British farming, along with other factors, including the weakened pound, enhanced welfare in Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, and people’s desire for a more permanent role, is why we are all here today.
Without sufficient farm workers, crops are left to rot in the field—a scene that was, unfortunately, witnessed last year. Some farmers, for the first time, had to watch their wonderful premium produce waste away in the fields, as the workforce had dispersed by late in the season. A recent survey conducted by NFUS horticulture and potato members between January and February and this year had some startling outcomes, which I hope will convey the seriousness of the current situation. All 100% of those who were contacted said that they were “concerned” or “very concerned” about the impact that labour shortages would have on their businesses in 2018 and beyond; 46% said they had difficulty harvesting their 2017 crop due to labour shortages; 65% of respondents said that recruiting non-EU workers was more challenging in 2017 than in 2016; and 74% anticipated new and increased challenges in recruiting non-EU workers in 2018.
Has my hon. Friend heard, as I have done from growers in my constituency, that the particular worry is the decline in the number of returning workers? The returning workforce is really important, as farmers are used to having the same workers coming back year after year, and these workers already have the skills and knowledge to be very effective and productive.
I agree with my hon. Friend on that. My soft fruit farms in Angus have workers who come back for six, seven, eight, nine or 10 years, and we are also seeing a decline in that area. Obviously, that skill we are losing in British farms is of great concern.
Most alarming was the farming industry’s response to these issues. Farmers are businessmen, after all, and if the figures do not stack up, they have little choice, no matter how difficult that decision is. Some 58% of respondents said they were likely or very likely to downsize their business and 42% said they would cease current activity. British Summer Fruits and the British Leafy Salads Association, which collectively represent 90% of growers in their sectors, carried out a similar survey in 2016, which had results reflecting those of the NFUS one. However, this most recent survey is more startling.
I commend the hon. Lady for having secured this debate. I was contacted a few months after the referendum by a farmer in my constituency who said that the farm manager, a Polish gentleman who had been working seasonally for him since Poland had joined the EU, brought a skilled crew of workers every year. They had never had any problems at the UK border until the weeks after the 2016 referendum, when every single one of them was stopped and given the ninth degree about who they were, what they were doing and why they were coming to the UK. Has she picked up anything from the farmers in her constituency to suggest that this very clear message that these workers were not welcome at the UK border is helping to deter people from even attempting to come here to work on our farms?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I do not think his story would resonate with any of the farmers in my constituency. There has been an issue for several years, since before the referendum in 2016, and any farmer would agree with that.
Action must be taken, or we will watch the demise of an industry that is so inherently British. Migrant workers enjoy coming over to the United Kingdom, which is why so many farms have loyalty from them, year after year, with some having a 10-year return rate. They are rewarded with a healthy wage—some pickers in Angus earn up to £12 per hour, which is well above the minimum wage.
As for a solution, there is only one choice: the introduction of a system that permits individuals from European and non-European states to come to the UK specifically to carry out this seasonal work. This is not labour that can be undertaken by the existing British workforce. We do not have the numbers in the rural areas where it is required, and nor do we have people who are willing to undertake the lifestyle that is necessary for the harvesting of crops. Early starts and intensive work is the norm. As I said before, it is skilled work. One can go and pick fruit, but to achieve the necessary rate requires stamina and skill, which are generated over time. To put it simply, it is hard graft.
It is without question that if a job is available, a British person should have a chance to compete for it, but I am reminded of an example that demonstrates my point. There is a producer, which I shall not name, that has on two occasions attempted to find seasonal staff from among the local workforce. On the first occasion, the producer worked with the local jobcentre and advertised extensively on social media and in the recruitment section of the local newspaper. There was a high volume of local applicants and the producer went on to hire 90 workers. Within three weeks, only 10 members of staff remained. In 2017, the same producer offered 12 jobs; 10 employees started and only two remain. The job is simply unattractive to the domestic workforce.
In July last year, my hon. Friend Neil Parish led a debate on this very topic. He stressed the need for the introduction of a seasonal migrant scheme, and drew the support and presence of Members from across the political spectrum, including the shadow DEFRA Minister at that debate, Dr Drew. The need for a scheme has only grown with time, as has the support for it. I am grateful for the encouragement and backing from the entire Chamber, with Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National party and Democratic Unionist party representatives all urging the Government to act.
I have strongly supported this issue since I came into office and know that it requires the input of the farming community. Following constant lobbying from my local farmers, I have taken the case to my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Secretary, to immigration Ministers, and to the Prime Minister herself. Along with the National Farmers Union Scotland, I have pressed our argument at every level. Every time I have delivered my case, it has been recognised. I will continue to push for swift action.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on the great work she has already done to try to push this matter forward. This is of course an incredibly important issue, but does she agree that there are many other industries that would also like the Government to look at their workers’ immigration status, including the financial services and our great universities? Does she agree that the Government in the round should be doing an extensive piece of work on what the immigration system should look like to support those industries post-Brexit?
Obviously, a lot of work is going on through the Migration Advisory Committee, and that will be produced in its totality in the autumn. I fully agree that immigration is not just important for the agricultural sector; indeed, in hospitality and many other sectors people are genuinely worried and looking forward to the immigration framework that is produced in due course.
I was delighted when last month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs accepted an invite to Angus, where we toured the largest fruit farm in my constituency. During our meeting, and after repeated questions on the subject, I was finally promised that a clear answer would be given on the issue. That was repeated at the National Farmers Union conference last month, although it was within neither the timeframe that I requested nor the one that the farming community requires. Farmers need clarity and they need it urgently. I will continue to fight until we receive it.
Why do we need a scheme so urgently? Three words: harvest twenty-eighteen. It is imperative that we act now, because our farmers cannot plan, cannot invest and cannot ensure that the crops they sow will be harvested. This is an industry in turmoil. The Migration Advisory Committee is currently producing a report on the impact of European economic area workers in the UK labour market, and it will be published in the autumn. Following consultation with farmers in my constituency, I contributed to the report, stressing the situation in Angus. I am certain that other Members present also added the voices of their own constituents.
We do not yet know the findings of that developing report, but the MAC has in the past been vocal about the necessity of retaining seasonal workers. In a report from 2013, when the previous scheme was repealed, the MAC acknowledged the likely events that would take place:
“Growers were in general agreement that, at least in the short term (one to two years), they will be able to find the required supply of seasonal labour from Bulgaria and Romania. However, based on their experience following the EU accession of eight Eastern European countries (A8) in 2004, growers expressed strong concerns that they will find it increasingly difficult to recruit workers from Bulgaria and Romania, who will likely seek employment in other sectors with less physically demanding work and more permanent employment. In addition, because SAWS workers predominantly live in situ on the farms, and thus provide a flexible and quick response to peaks and troughs in filling orders, farmers are concerned that, without a scheme, workers will be less flexible and reliable.”
The introduction of a new scheme, similar to the one that was abandoned, is the only option. It is imperative that we create a system that makes the process of coming to work in the UK for seasonal periods as simple and attractive as possible. Migrant workers should have the ability to work across farming operations, perhaps starting off dressing potatoes, then bringing in a cereal harvest, and finishing in a soft fruit tunnel. We need a system that enables them to work wherever there is demand in the agricultural industry. That is what the workforce wants and what the farmers want.
Countless countries throughout Europe are having to turn to alternative means to secure new labour sources. Spain is dependent on labour from the north of Africa; Italy has previously recruited large numbers from Bangladesh; and Germany, like us, has been dependent on Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Croatia. We are competing directly with those countries, and if we do not ensure that British farms seem the most appealing prospect, foreign workers will go elsewhere, as they rightly should.
In closing, I say again how much I—and, I am sure, farmers throughout the United Kingdom—appreciate the presence of all Members today. There is a need for us to make progress during this debate and for a system to be put in place in the very near future. Since 2013, there have been calls for a seasonal agricultural worker scheme, and with every year that has passed the situation has become more strained. The British rural sector is a key part of our national economy, and one in which we have seen tremendous success in recent years. More broadly, our international standing in respect of agriculture is impeccable. I am so incredibly proud of the produce that we grow across Angus and, indeed, our United Kingdom. I so desperately want to ensure that our high-quality British produce will dominate our shop shelves. We must safeguard this industry; I hope that this debate will help to guarantee its protection.
I am delighted to be able to make a short contribution; some of us have to try to get back via non-existent stations and railway lines that will not be open. I am sure that will be the case for many people.
I have a couple of observations. I intervened on Kirstene Hair, and she put forward a valuable case with which I entirely agree. I do not know why the scheme that she called for has not yet happened. We had a debate in November 2016 and, more particularly, the debate on the back of a Select Committee report in July last year, in both of which Members said categorically that there was a need to reintroduce the seasonal agricultural workers scheme in some form.
Last year, somewhere between 10% and 15% of fruit and vegetables were ploughed back into the ground due to the lack of available labour. There are different reasons why some labourers may not want to come—it is to do with not just Brexit but the change in the value of the pound—but they did not come because there was very little encouragement for them to come. The scheme is all about trying to make sure that there is sufficient labour from abroad. Labourers have traditionally come from abroad, so this is not a recent thing; it has happened for decades. It has been more important recently because we do not have enough domestic labour. There is an issue to be addressed there.
People say that technology may be one of the answers, but, unfortunately, technology cannot yet pick strawberries—not without bruising them and making them next to useless. I do not understand why it has taken so long to address this matter. Is it because DEFRA has not made strong enough representations? The Secretary of State seems very keen to go out and embrace every green group and get every farming organisation on his side, and, certainly, he seems to be very savvy with the media, but when it comes to delivery on a fairly basic part of his Department’s responsibility, we have not seen any real action. Although he has not been in office for that long, this is a pretty important issue for the farming community. I know that because the NFU and other parts of the farming industry lobby me regularly and tell me that this is, while not their top concern, one of their major concerns.
My first question is why the matter has not been addressed. Is it because the Secretary of State is not able to make efficient representation, or is it just that, at the moment, the Home Office seems to want to block any attempt to allow people into this country because it wants to get the numbers down, even when those people are desperately needed, as they are in this sector. The hon. Lady told us that very clearly.
My second and concluding point is that we need to recognise that the whole rural community feels that it is not being listened to on this issue, especially given the way it has made its representations—over time and in a very detailed, comprehensive and thoughtful manner. The hon. Lady quoted all the figures, and I will not in any way try to reproduce them. My understanding here is that, unless we get those numbers, organisations will go out of business and fruit and veg will not be picked. Indeed, it is not just that part of the agricultural industry that is facing these issues. The dairy industry has regularly employed people from abroad. Those people come here because of the nature of the experiences they get, the English they learn and, indeed, the way in which we have looked after them for generations. So the second underlying point here is the rural economy versus the urban economy. I make no bones about the fact that I am always trying to represent the rural community in my constituency. Its voice is not always heard as loudly as it might be and it is not always heard as loudly as it might be on these Labour Benches, but it is important that we get its point of view across. It is important to ensure that our farming industry has a very strong voice, because it will mean that we get action.
Therefore, between DEFRA not delivering on this and the rural community feeling somewhat isolated and unable to deliver on one of its key demands, we need some assurance from the Home Office today that it will move this matter forward. It is too late for this year; the harvest is already well under way in that it has been planted. Perhaps somebody, somewhere, will pick the produce, but—I am not being funny—who will want to change their whole life experience by suddenly thinking come May, June or July, “Well, I’ll go to Britain.” People make plans months and months in advance, and yet they have been given no assurance whatever that a scheme exists for which they can get a visa, and no assurance that they will be—dare I say it—welcomed in this country, because there is an underlying view either that they are not needed, or that they are needed in far fewer numbers than they used to be.
I say to the Home Office: please can we have a scheme back in place? Hopefully, it will do what the old scheme used to do, which was very efficient—in fact I do not know why it was removed. I was not in the House at the time, so I was not part of any decision. None the less, it was removed and we are now seeing the catastrophic consequences of that. It is a tragedy when food is wasted because it is not picked. We need an answer today, and we need a scheme, if not for this year, certainly for next year. Perhaps people will reconsider and still come to this country in the summer. I pray that the Home Office and DEFRA will get their act together and put this scheme back in place, because it is desperately needed.
In my constituency of Chichester, we are home to a fresh food industry that has an annual turnover in excess of £1 billion and employs 9,000 people full time. This industry has thrived for several reasons, not least because, apparently, we are the brightest part of the UK, with our sunny climate and coastal proximity, which magnifies the brightness by up to 10%. This makes Chichester a great place to grow fruit and veg.
The growers in my area can only continue to grow, in every sense of the word, if they have the workforce to harvest their crops. According to the chairman of the West Sussex Growers Association, the impacts of Brexit, or the EU referendum, are already being felt. Investment locally has been held back by many growers, as they are awaiting the outcome of the negotiations. I am aware that some of their costs for raw materials have increased by up to 20% owing to the falling value of the pound on the international markets. On the flipside, our currency devaluation has made our home-grown crops more competitive, so, for some, sales are up.
Seasonal migrant labour within the growing industry has been part of its history since the post-war period. The work that it does is often physically exerting and repetitive, but it is skilled. I can personally attest to that as I have had the opportunity to pick peppers at Tangmere Airfield Nurseries, where they supply 50% of all the UK grown peppers sold in supermarkets nationwide.
Many growers are struggling to maintain the levels of labour needed. The NFU industry survey identified a shortage of 13% across the 2017 season, peaking in September at 29%, and a fifth of businesses said that last year had been the hardest recruitment year compared with any previous years. Furthermore, growers in my area claim that recruiting more skilled employees who are fluent in English has recently been much harder. They have attributed that to the lower value of the pound, which has meant that seasonal workers can earn just as much, or more, in other European countries, and we are competing for that talent. As a consequence, 73% of UK industry employers are taking steps to encourage seasonal recruitment, with wages up by 9% in 2017 over the previous year.
The rural industries have generally made efficiencies and increased productivity by using advanced robotics to move rows and rows of pots through giant glasshouses from seed, to germination, to packaging. As an industry, the utilisation of technology is key, and growers and farmers in my constituency have invested heavily in that area. However, there is still a point at which people are needed, most commonly during the picking stage.
In Chichester, the industry is keen to upskill and train its employees, and has begun to implement training schemes using the apprenticeship levy. In the coming weeks, several growers are meeting representatives from further education colleges to see how they can collaborate on apprenticeship schemes using the levy and have more home-grown resource.
On my visit to Tangmere, I met a former packhouse worker from Poland, who now runs the whole warehouse operation. As in any industry, hard work and talent are rewarded with promotion. For example, the entire management team at Hall Hunter, a local producer of soft fruits in my constituency, is from Bulgaria.
Since the referendum, immigration control has been discussed by people in the industry at length. Owing to the short-term nature and skill level of the majority of the work, we need to create a migration tool to ensure that our rural industries are able to attract and recruit the people they need. Many, including the NFU, are calling for the reintroduction of the seasonal agricultural workforce scheme—known as SAWS—which could be an appropriate mechanism to ensure labour security for the sector while maintaining control of our immigration system.
Whatever system we put in place, it must facilitate seasonal workers to come to this country to fulfil the needs of the sector. The system needs to be as frictionless as possible, allowing for remote application and high levels of automation, and ensuring that there are as few barriers as possible to bringing in the much-needed labour. Flexibility is required to take into account crops with longer harvest seasons or career progression for those skilled workers who are offered it.
Although the rural industries are concerned about workers as we leave the EU, they also see opportunities as a consequence. Many are hopeful about access to international markets where we can sell our quality produce. Others feel that there may be opportunities to expand our market share domestically as some crops are undergrown in the UK, including tomatoes, of which a massive 80% are imported, despite having the perfect growing conditions in Chichester.
We must do what we can to make sure that we have a suitable mechanism in place to support the growing industry, ensuring that it has the right workforce it needs when it is needed. If we can get this right, I am confident that this industry will continue to thrive in my constituency and across the UK.
It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this important debate and Kirstene Hair for leading it with an excellent speech. This debate could not have come at a more critical time for British farmers. Despite the weather outside, summer and the harvest season will be upon us before we know it. I am glad to have been able to co-sponsor the application as another vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farmers.
We have already heard how important migrant labour is to our farming sector. That is true all year round, not just for seasonal work. It is true right across the supply chain—not just in picking, but in packaging and processing, right through to the retail and hospitality sectors. Migrant labour is important not just in low-skilled work, but in highly skilled jobs such as food scientists and vets, which I will mention again later.
Migrant workers have made a huge contribution to the British economy. The whole rhetoric during the Brexit campaign about their being a drain on local resources was not matched by the figures. They have a lower than average use of the NHS, use local shops and put money into the local economy. As we are hearing today, they will be much missed when they are no longer welcome on these shores. The debate today is about seasonal migrant labour, which is where the most pressing problem lies. This is not just a far-off problem that we need to deal with in the distant, post-Brexit, post-transition period future. The shortage in seasonal workers is happening now.
There are already alarming reports that food is rotting in British farms as there is simply no one available to harvest it. In total last year, something like 4,300 jobs were left unfilled. One farm in Scotland had to leave up to 100 tonnes of blueberries at a cost of £500,000. Another farm in Kent could not find workers to pick 2,000 tonnes of raspberries, costing it £700,000. Although demand for British fruit and veg has risen drastically—demand for strawberries alone rose by 180% from 1997 to 2015—the ability to source migrant workers has fallen. In September 2017, a huge 29% shortage was identified, and there are reports that the 2018 harvest has already been written off by many farmers. At a recent meeting of the APPG, which the farming Minister attended, we heard from a farmer in Kent—I think it was the same farmer who had lost £700,000—that he was already incurring significant losses due to a shortage of labour. He was talking about moving a substantial part of his business to Spain, which is clearly not what we want to happen.
Besides the obvious problem with food waste and inefficiencies, these rotting harvests jeopardise the already thin profit margins of British farmers, putting their entire businesses at risk. There is also the risk of cutting off the ongoing supply of quality British food getting to our supermarkets, as well as the tarnishing of the British brand abroad if we are unable even to get our own food out of the ground. As we have heard, the truth is that it is becoming far more difficult to attract workers.
In recent years, agriculture has become so heavily reliant on workers from eastern Europe, particularly the recent EU accession countries. Statistics show that migrants make up about 20% of regular full-time staff in the agriculture sector, with the majority coming from Romania and Bulgaria. According to estimates from the Association of Labour Providers, 90% to 95% of seasonal agricultural workers are from other EU countries. But as people from these countries now have the right to work and settle in the EU, they are looking not for seasonal work, but for permanent, better paid jobs often in towns and cities, rather than in rural areas. They want to be in places where they can bring their families with them, with better schools and local opportunities for family members to get jobs—places where they can make a life. We saw this first with Polish workers. We have heard from farmers that, going back a few years, perhaps 90% of their labour force were from Poland. That has very much disappeared, as those workers have been replaced by people from the newer accession countries—the Romanians and Bulgarians. However, these new workers are now following the Polish workers into permanent jobs in the towns and cities.
Pay and conditions for agricultural work are not attractive, certainly not enough to attract British workers and increasingly not enough to attract migrant workers either. Accommodation in rural areas is expensive and, if provided by employers, it is often very basic at best. In some cases, it is far worse than that. Unite the union has done some excellent work highlighting some of those concerns in its excellent report, “From Plough to Plate”. We also hear stories about the role of gangmasters and even human trafficking in the food and agriculture sector.
The labour shortage is real. It is an immediate threat. I am not being alarmist and neither are other Members who are raising these concerns. The Government urgently need to address the issue. This was recognised by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I sit. Last year, we conducted an inquiry into labour constraints and published our report in April, just before the election disrupted everything. We took evidence from a Home Office Minister and a DEFRA Minister, and we felt that there was a huge degree of complacency from the Ministers that the issue was something that we could muddle through, that it would all be fine and that we did not need an urgent response. Our report concluded that:
“We do not share the confidence of the Government that the sector does not have a problem: on the contrary, evidence submitted to this inquiry suggests the current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken”.
We also had real concerns about the lack of empirical evidence on which the Government based their decisions; they were using flawed statistics. In another of the Committee’s recommendations, we stated:
“We are concerned that the industry has such different experiences to those reported by the Government”.
In other words, the Government were not listening to experiences directly from people working in and running businesses in the sector. We continued:
“It is apparent that the statistics used by the Government are unable to provide a proper indication of agriculture’s labour needs. These statistics and their utility for measuring supply of, and demand for, seasonal labour must be reviewed by the end of 2017 to give the sector confidence in the adequacy of the official data on which employment and immigration policies will be based for the period after the UK leaves the EU.”
It is an understatement to say that the Government’s response, which came out in October last year, was weak. It showed shocking complacency. The Government chose to reject the hard facts and data that had been presented to the Committee by the sector, and failed to acknowledge that their own statistics were not fit for the purpose of measuring seasonal labour in specific sectors.
The strong feeling that I had during these discussions in the Select Committee and the APPG was that an ideological fervour for Brexit among certain Ministers—and, with that, unbending support for stringent curbs on freedom of movement—had completely overridden any common-sense approach to this problem. The response was very much, “We voted for Brexit. We voted to stop freedom of movement. That is our approach, no matter what evidence we have that this is going to harm the British economy.” I have heard that the then tourism Minister—the current Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen—took a very different approach. When he was in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, he went into bat with the Home Office for the tourism sector, saying that hospitality absolutely needs some flexibility to bring in migrant workers. That approach was not replicated by the farming Minister, which is one of the reasons why we are where we are now.
It was very welcome that the Environment Secretary made positive noises about reintroducing the seasonal agricultural workers scheme in his recent speech to the NFU. That scheme was scrapped in 2013 on evidence that we did not need it because we had workers from accession countries—the Romanians and Bulgarians. However, that is now no longer the case. It is worrying that we are only now starting to talk about the possibility of reintroducing SAWS; it would be far too late to get such a scheme in place for this year’s harvest.
However, I am not convinced that reintroducing SAWS would, in itself, solve the problem. As I have said, many people who would previously have done such work simply do not want to do it, and do not need to do it, any more. The exchange rate, the uncertainty following the Brexit referendum, the feeling that they are not welcome here, and even the British weather all mean that working elsewhere in the EU is a more attractive prospect. As we have heard, the economic situation in their own countries has improved to the extent that perhaps they do not need to come over here. Certainly, the poor exchange rate means that the financial benefits of doing so are much less, and taking home money with which they can afford to pay for things in their own countries is not such a pull. Even countries such as Poland cannot get workers; it is looking to Ukraine, for example, for people to do its agricultural work.
I do not see how far we can carry on with this chasing after cheaper labour, looking ever further afield. A year or two ago, I was on a flight from Stansted to Moldova that was full of Romanian workers who had clearly been clearly hopping on budget flights, coming over here to work, and going back to their families at the weekend. If we are looking further afield, budget flights on easyJet are not going to bring in workers from Vietnam or Cambodia for £30 a time.
Exactly: to what extent do we keep chasing? As other countries become more affluent, why would people come here and not go to other countries where they would be able to earn more without—
The hon. Lady will know, presumably, as she has clearly studied these matters very closely, that SAWS brought in people from all kinds of places—from Africa, Asia, and so forth. When that scheme ended, that opportunity ended for those people too. Does she welcome that?
I think we are going to have to look further afield. I am not arguing against reintroducing SAWS; I am just casting doubts on whether that will be enough to address this problem and whether we will be able to attract workers. We will find that this applies even to some of the countries that we previously recruited from. For example, British companies in Kenya are sourcing beans, flowers or whatever—monocrop cultures—and employing workers there. Will we be able to attract workers to come over to Britain for the British summer when there is production in their own backyard?
There is much talk of stepping up recruitment of British workers—the Government focused on that quite heavily in their response to the EFRA report. We hear about having more skills, and the role of agriculture in universities and in high tech. It is very important that we encourage far more people to go into agriculture and the food sector, but those are not the types of jobs that we are talking about. The problem with attracting British workers is that the areas with the highest unemployment do not tend to be that close to the areas that need these seasonal workers. Students are often mentioned, but they have many other options. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Angus said, this is quite tough work. It is not just about fruit picking in the summer when the sun is shining, if it is, given the British climate; it is about jobs like picking Brussels sprouts in the freezing cold. It is backbreaking work, not something that people do because they fancy a little holiday while getting a bit of pocket money on the side.
As the Environment Secretary acknowledged in his recent speech, the sector will also have difficulty in accessing skilled labour when freedom of movement ends in areas where shortages are currently filled by European economic area workers. Some 90% of abattoir vets come from EU countries, and the vast majority arrived in the past five years, so they are not automatically covered by the right to stay here. The existing immigration system for non-EU skilled immigration is complicated, expensive and slow. There is no Environment Minister here today, but I would like to know—perhaps the Immigration Minister can tell us—whether the Environment Secretary has made a submission to the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee on the future visa needs of the sector, as well as pushing for SAWS.
At a broader level, the Environment Secretary sees the long-term solution to this problem lying in the move from
“a relatively labour intensive model of agriculture to a more capital intensive approach.”
However, automation and mechanisation, such as robotic fruit harvesting, is said to be at least five years away from commercialisation, and that means five years of missed harvests and countless farms going under. Even after those five years, probably only the largest, most profitable businesses will be able to afford to buy into such technologies. There are also some areas in which, I am told, automation is simply not possible. Asparagus has to be picked individually. Raspberries are too delicate not to be picked by hand.
This is part of a much broader concern. I would have liked the Environment Secretary to come before the House this week when the agriculture Command Paper was published. In fact, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, I have just put out a statement welcoming very much of what is in that Command Paper and the whole concept of moving to public money for public goods. I hope that he will consider the strong case made by people in the agroecology sector for making farming more sustainable and more environmentally friendly. We also need to look at the economic viability of the sector. Sufficient labour is absolutely crucial to that. We need some answers here today from the Home Office. We also need a much stronger focus from the DEFRA team, who are not here, on what they are going to do to address this impending crisis.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair, my co-chair on the APPG on fruit and vegetable farmers, on securing this important debate and on giving us the opportunity to have this important and urgent conversation in the Chamber. I also thank her for all the work she is doing to campaign for seasonal workers. It is a great pleasure to campaign with her on the matter.
With fields in my Kent constituency currently blanketed in snow—as is the case, I am sure, for pretty much all of us—the pleasures of summer strawberries and autumn fruits seem rather far off, but that is certainly not the case for our fruit and vegetable growers. They are already very worried that they will not have enough workers to harvest the crops this year. The NFU has been gathering extensive data on the growing problem of the workforce shortage. For example, in May last year, there was a national shortage of 9,000 workers. Later in the year, 60% of apple and pear growers reported that they were short of labour for their harvest. Last year was difficult; this year will be harder. As for further into the future, farmers are very worried.
The uncertainty has consequences. It takes three to six years to grow a productive fruit tree. Farmers are putting off investment decisions because of their fears about future access to labour. Thirty-one per cent. of top fruit growers say that uncertainty about staff has made them change their investment plans, so some are reducing investment, some are scaling down their businesses, and some are saying that they are going to chop down and scrub up their orchards.
That is particularly sad and worrying in the context of the past couple of decades, which have been a great British success story for fruit and veg growing. It has been a great area of growth for our economy. For example, home-grown berry production has increased by 131% in the past 20 years and the industry is now worth £1.2 billion. Strawberries have gone from being a luxury that a family might occasionally buy for a special event such as a barbecue to being a very normal and common part of a family’s weekly shop throughout the summer—and very frequently British berries are being bought. The UK’s production of fruit and vegetables is a great success story for our country. It is a growing industry that we should be supporting. But unless we fix the labour shortage, prices will go up, fewer people will be able to afford British fruit and vegetables, that growth may well reverse and a share of the British produce that we currently consume will be replaced by imports.
Like Kerry McCarthy, I have a farmer in my constituency who is not alone in shifting production overseas because of the shortage of labour here. Labour shortages are not just a problem in Britain. As other Members have said, the whole of the European Union is struggling to recruit its workforce for picking fruit and veg. Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Poland already have permit schemes that enable them to recruit workers from beyond the EU. If in the UK we introduced our own seasonal workers scheme, that would simply allow our growers to compete on a level playing field with their foreign competitors.
Since I became a Member of Parliament for a Kent constituency, where we grow lots of fruit and this is a common topic of conversation, I have often heard people say, “Why can’t British people do the work?” In the past we had the wonderful thing of people coming out of London to pick fruit in their holidays. Constituents tell me that they first came to Kent from the east end of London with their family when they were children to pick fruit and hops. It is also said that students could make up this workforce.
I have spoken to the growers in my constituency about this. They too would like to recruit British workers—local workers—to pick and pack the fruit and they have tried to do so. They have advertised locally and some have sometimes managed to recruit a very small number, but they know from experience that the local workforce do not supply the labour they need.
Part of the problem—and this is a good thing—is that we have very low unemployment. In my constituency there are about 700 people currently claiming jobseeker’s allowance. In the season, farms in my constituency require a workforce of 5,000 to 10,000 workers, and one farm alone employs around 1,000 seasonal workers, so those 700 people in my constituency looking for jobs simply cannot plug that gap.
As my hon. Friend will know, I represent a constituency that, with the surrounding area, produces about 30% of the fresh produce in the country, with a big demand for seasonal labour, which it has had for a very long time. Would she concede that the ready supply of relatively inexpensive labour displaces investment in recruitment, in skills and in technology and automation? That is certainly the macroeconomic evidence from around the world, as well as in this country.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. When employers have access to a ready supply of relatively cheap labour, they may choose to use that workforce rather than invest in technology. We know, though, that there are particular challenges with the automated picking of soft fruit, which I will come to in a moment. Although we would like to see more automation, it is not going to be achieved overnight. We need a near-term solution to the immediate labour problem, hand in hand with investment in the technology that can help us to shift to a less labour-intensive industry.
My hon. Friend is making some valuable points. Will she not only join me in welcoming seasonal migrant workers to help in constituencies such as mine, but work with me and others to put pressure on the Government to ensure that we are championing our agricultural industries and increasing their prestige and the jobs that they create? They will then become viable options for young people, and we will show young farmers the great contribution they are making in constituencies such as mine and hers.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We absolutely should be championing our agricultural industries and encouraging and enabling more young people to go into careers in agriculture. There is a challenge for farmers: they would hope to be able to recruit skilled British labour for all sorts of jobs, but young people are tending not to go into the sector. We should absolutely encourage British people to do that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, while we all support greater investment in technology within the agricultural sector, we are never going to be able to have a technological solution for harvesting in conditions such as those on hillsides in south Devon?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I am wary of saying “never”, but it is true that, with certain landscapes or certain produce, it is very difficult to have an entirely automated production chain. That is simply impossible, or certainly a very long way off. In the process of getting there, we must ensure we do not destroy our industry. If we do not even manage to sustain the industry now, we will not have the opportunity to do all sorts of wonderful automated fruit production in future.
Many people have said that we might be able to employ students, but as Members have said, the duration of the season has changed. Thanks in part to things such as polytunnels, we now have a much longer fruit-growing season and it is far longer than the student holidays. Along with the expectations of the consumer and the supermarkets and the requirement for a certain level of intensity and consistency in production, that means that a casual student workforce simply is not the right answer for modern production.
In the long term, recruiting people from further and further afield is probably not the answer either. It probably is not going to make sense to fly people from the other side of the world to come and pick fruit indefinitely. As I said, I think automation will gradually replace manual labour, and in some parts of the production line it already has. There is a large amount of automation in various parts of the production line, particularly for vegetables, rather than soft fruit.
Farmers and growers tell us that the robotic picking of soft fruit is a long way off. A robot has been developed, but it is very slow. It is certainly not able to do it at remotely the rate or cost-effectiveness that is expected by supermarkets and consumers. When a product is being manufactured, the robot needs to pick up a consistent part and put it into something, but every single bit of soft fruit is different. That requires a huge amount of sophistication from the robot’s vision systems and artificial intelligence. That technology is out there, but we are some way off.
That said, I very much welcome that, in the newly published Command Paper on the future for food, farming and the environment in a green Brexit, there is a recognition of the need for investment in research and development in agriculture to improve productivity. There is also an industrial strategy challenge fund to support this area. I urge the Government to do even more to consider how to incentivise automation in the horticulture industry but, to be clear, the benefits of that automation are particularly for the future. We have to deal with the immediate problem our farmers have and their ability to harvest fruit this year and in the next few years.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She is right, of course, that there will continue to be a demand for labour, but that demand is not static, for the very reasons she has just given. In Lincolnshire, colleagues are working with the local enterprise partnership and the University of Lincoln to look at exactly the matters that she has described, and I invite colleagues across the House to do so with their own local universities and LEPs. There is real progress to be made in looking at where greater productivity can stem from greater automation and technology, as well as the investment in skills that I mentioned earlier.
I agree with my right hon. Friend.
I want to talk briefly about the health dimension of this debate. There have been headlines just this week that more than seven in every 10 people born between the early 1980s and mid 1990s will be overweight by the time they reach middle age. We know that one in five children are obese by the time they leave primary school. One part of tackling the obesity crisis we face as a society is to encourage people to eat more healthily.
On average, our fruit and veg consumption needs to increase by 64% to be in line with the Government’s dietary guidelines, and one of the biggest factors influencing people’s food choices is price. The price of fruit and veg is already going up. On average, prices of the most popular vegetables rose by 3.2% last year, and fruit prices rose by 7.2%, compared with overall inflation of 2.7%.
Just the other day, I happened to be talking to a couple of mothers, who told me how they were shopping around to get the best value fruit and veg. For instance, they chose a shop that sells carrots, including the funny shaped ones, for 39p a bag, because they wanted to give their children a healthy diet. They are worried, however, about the rate at which the price of fruit and veg is increasing; if those prices continue to go up, they are worried about whether they will be able to afford fresh fruit and veg for their families.
I thank my hon. Friend for kindly giving way. Fruit and veg is seasonal and so are the prices, because of availability and supply and demand internationally. It is interesting that she mentioned carrots, because that process is now highly mechanised. I own a carrot factory—it is in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The automation is such that the lifting, washing and selection of carrots are all mechanised, but the price of carrots and vegetables has never been so low. We are in a very competitive industry.
I defer to my hon. Friend’s expertise on carrots. The reason I gave them as an example is that they were mentioned by those two mums. The point I was making was how price-sensitive they are. I have heard people say, “Oh, fruit and veg are really cheap”, and that that is not a factor in shopping choices, so I gave that example to illustrate that shoppers look very carefully at the specific prices of fruit and veg. As prices go up—as I have said, the price of fruit has gone up on average by 7.2%—they will affect people’s choices and their ability to purchase fresh fruit and veg for their families. In particular, I am worried that the labour shortages now and those on the horizon will only push up further the price of fruit and veg.
A seasonal workers scheme would help British growers to keep on producing affordable fruit and veg. While we are on the subject, I think that the new agricultural policy is an opportunity for us as a country to go further, to try harder and to look harder at what we can do to support the production and consumption of fruit and veg. We need to look at how we can support growers more, looking the whole way along the supply chain. We need to consider how we can reward retailers for selling healthy food and how our overall agricultural policy can encourage and enable consumers to buy healthy fruit and veg, so that the British people can eat a healthier diet. We now have a golden opportunity to do that as we rethink our agricultural policy.
None of that, however, will be possible without a workforce to pick and pack the produce we grow. Therefore, I again urge the Government to introduce a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, to not keep our growers waiting, to put an end to this uncertainty and to get on with it.
It is a pleasure to follow Helen Whately. I suspect that we know some of the same farmers and they are quite complimentary about how she represents them on this issue. I hope, however, that she will rediscover her inner remainer and join us in a campaign to stay in the European Union, because the farmers in Kent to whom I have spoken would certainly like us to do exactly that.
I congratulate Kirstene Hair on securing the debate. She and others have given us all an opportunity to reminisce on the strawberry or raspberry picking that we did in our youth. I picked strawberries in France for 50 hours a week, at 10 francs an hour. I can confirm that after my first day of strawberry picking, I was sick as well, and that I dreamed of picking strawberries throughout the rest of the month, because that was what I was doing. I can also confirm that the explosive capacity of a raspberry is much greater than that of a strawberry and that, on impact, a raspberry makes a bigger stain.
My speech will be based mainly on my knowledge through family who are farmers in Kent. Their experience is that there has already been a significant downturn in the number of workers coming from places such as Bulgaria and Romania. That is happening for a number of reasons, one of which is that the value of the pound has dropped, thereby reducing their remittances. Their own economies are also growing strongly, in part as a result of their membership of the European Union. Although Members of this House are occasionally reluctant to talk about the benefits of the EU, I suspect that it has played a significant part in the economies of Bulgaria and Romania. Given their growing economies, I am concerned that the process of Brexit is making it harder for the UK to export to the very markets that we have helped create through supporting those countries’ membership of the European Union.
I am told that the workers who are coming now are older and less well educated, so it is no longer the students who are coming, but an older section of the population who, unlike the students, often do not speak English. Those students came partly because they wanted to practise their English and earn some money, but also because they wanted to consider staying in the UK for the longer term. Clearly, that is now of less interest to them, because of the perception, and more, of the United Kingdom since the vote on
As a number of Members have already said, we should not expect those people to be replaced by UK workers. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent referred to the 700 people on JSA in her constituency; clearly, if all 700 of them worked, they would not replace the 5,000 to 10,000 seasonal workers who come to work on the farms in the surrounding area. The hon. Member for Angus has confirmed that the picking season can last up to 10 months, so such workers are required for a substantial period. One farmer to whom I spoke said that he has always sought British workers for his farm. In six years, he had one apply but they lasted precisely two and a half weeks. We are not going to find people in the UK jobs market to replace everyone currently working in a seasonal capacity.
Where will the workers come from? As countries such as Romania and Bulgaria get stronger, and given that alternatives such as Spain and Germany are now more attractive to them because of the fall in the value of the pound, we need to look further afield. I do not agree that we need to look as far afield as Sri Lanka; the farmer I spoke to reckons that the additional cost for that might be three times that of bringing over someone from Ukraine. The farmers would have to bear that cost, which would make our industry less competitive. Indeed, that is already happening because the workers who are coming over now are older and less productive, which adds to costs and will presumably also lead in the longer term, if not immediately, to an increase in food prices.
The old SAW scheme allowed workers from Ukraine and elsewhere to come, and that is what farmers want to happen. They want the market to be open to the 40 million Ukrainians and to the Moldovans and the Russians. That scheme was tightly controlled; it did not mean that people came to the UK to work and then disappeared into the jobs market. They came here, worked hard, earned money and then they returned home, so there was no issue with people disappearing and working unofficially. That is what is being called for, and I believe that Poland is now providing visas to Ukrainians. Poland is benefiting from an influx of Ukrainians, and that is making its agricultural sector much more productive. Those workers in Poland earn the anything-but-princely sum of £20 a day—we would not want to replicate that here, but it demonstrates that Poland is accessing those workers who are contributing to its agriculture, while our agriculture is suffering.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent highlighted some cases of produce that had not been picked, but on the whole I think that Kent has probably just about managed this year, and it is the coming season that will present the real challenge. Any scheme needs to be up and running now—it cannot start in the new financial year in April or some time towards the end of the year. The season lasts for 10 months, and those people are needed now, not in four or five months. Hon. Members will have heard the figures quoted by the NFU about a 12.5% shortfall in seasonal workers this year, and the situation is unlikely to improve over the next 12 months.
A number of Members have rightly pointed out that although, in the longer term, automation might provide part of the solution—it has done so in some industries—currently it cannot do that in the agriculture sector. It is not about saying that because we are using all this cheap labour we are not investing in equipment; the equipment to invest in does not yet exist, although it might be there in five years’ time for apple and plum picking.
I have already declared an interest in that I own a carrot factory. There is enormous mechanisation in factories. The right hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about the picking of soft fruit, but picking top fruit now involves serious mechanisation, as does processing it. Having been in the industry, I know that the availability of relatively cheap labour stopped an enormous investment in mechanisation, but such mechanisation has now come down greatly in price. Does he agree that some of the issues regarding the availability of labour will encourage factories to mechanise? Many of these jobs are very repetitive and would be better mechanised.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I am happy that he intervened. This must be a balance, and my understanding is that although currently a huge amount can be done with mechanisation in a packing environment, we are not yet there for apple and plum picking, and we may not be there for three, four or five years—who knows? There is a lot of talk about technological solutions being the answer to the border issue between Ireland and Northern Ireland—or, indeed, between Camden and Westminster—but in practice those blue sky solutions do not yet exist. I did hear someone suggesting that drones might be the solution to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, so perhaps that is also the solution for picking apples and plums. Realistically, however, those technological solutions are not yet there.
What is the solution to this problem? Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that the Liberal Democrats will continue to campaign for a vote on the final deal, so that if people do not like what they are offered once an eventual deal is struck between the UK Government and the EU, they have a chance of pulling away from it and stopping Brexit. If that does not happen, what is the immediate solution to our problem? Clearly, it is to allow workers from EU and non-EU countries—increasingly, it will be non-EU countries—to come to the United Kingdom through controlled schemes that have worked effectively in the past. It will also be about supporting technology to ensure that investment goes into those areas where that can make a difference.
We also need a seasonal scheme. In the past I have heard senior Ministers say, “Oh, we can sort it all out by introducing six-month visas”, but that will not be sufficient. As we have heard, the season now lasts for 10 months, so the visas must be longer than the six months proposed. If all that can be implemented now—not at the end of the year and not next season—there is a realistic prospect that most of our farmers will be able to pick all their crops. If we do not act now, however, there is a real risk that reports towards the end of this year will be about a substantially greater proportion of fruit and veg left to rot in our fields.
It is just possible that our farmers will get through this year because freedom of movement is still available and farms have access to eastern European migrants who hopefully will come and do the work. Next year is when it all kicks in, because freedom of movement will end and the available sources of labour will go with it. At that point we will need innovative solutions to bring in seasonal labour so that the crops can be picked.
I agree entirely, and there must be a sense of urgency about this. As I understand, however, yesterday the Government made a U-turn, and having said that March 2019 was the cut-off point for new arrivals, they will now allow people to continue to arrive during the transition period. If that is correct, that may help the industry for a further few years.
It is a pleasure to follow Tom Brake and, like other colleagues, I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair on securing this debate. Hon. Members have spoken compellingly about our need to address this issue here and now, and I will focus mostly on issues of time, because we do not have the luxury of that on our side.
I am sure that Members across the House will join me in paying tribute to our farmers and fishers. If we think it is cold here, imagine what it is like on a Dartmoor hill farm right now, or out on a Brixham trawler. We should pay tribute to all those who put food on our plates, and thank them for what they do. I particularly thank Riverford farm in my constituency, the National Farmers Union, and all those farmers who have written to me about this issue for the work they are doing to collect evidence for this debate.
As I have said, we do not have the luxury of time, and Riverford farm has made the point compellingly to me that this autumn it has to make crunch decisions about employing workers for the following year. There is still great uncertainty about the transition period, and as we have heard so compellingly from Members across the House, even if a transition period is in place, there is a shortage in our workforce here and now, and we could use the mechanism of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme to address that.
The Government have commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to research the impact of leaving the European Union on the UK labour market, and to consider how to align immigration policy with a modern industrial strategy, but that is not due to report until autumn. It will then take time to implement such a scheme, and I do not think we have the luxury of that time.
Many nations across the EU already supplement their workforce with a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, so will the Minister give us some hope that the Home Office will take a decision on this issue sooner than we would expect under the current timetable, with a report coming forward in autumn? As we have heard, the uncertainty is delaying investment now for the future, and we need something to take back to our constituents who work in these important businesses. They are already making great efforts to recruit locally, but as we have heard, even with those efforts and schemes to encourage and retain a UK-based workforce, they are still dependent on a workforce that is supplemented from outside the country.
As the mother of someone who works in the robotics industry, I appreciate the investment going into those technological solutions. I am afraid, however, that it simply will not provide all the answers we need to make sure our crops are picked in a timely manner. There can be nothing more heartbreaking than seeing crops rotting in the fields, as I am sure the Minister will reflect in her closing remarks.
We have heard from other Members that the labour force will have to come from outside the EU and the EEA. As we leave the EU, is this not an opportunity for a policy to employ people from outwith the EEA area? If we were not leaving the European Union, there might not be the same opportunity because of EU regulation.
I really think this is entirely in addition to it. I remain of the view that we should be focusing on the issues of frictionless trade and keeping very close links to our European Union partners as we exit the EU. I think these issues will arise irrespective of that, as we have heard. Whatever the situation with transition, I hope that the Minister will consider this as something we could use to supplement the arrangements we will have.
Most of all, I would like the Minister to give us some indication of when we are likely to see a decision. Farmers in my constituency here and now are starting to make decisions about their future plans and investment that will impact not only their businesses; remember that they also employ a local workforce in many other capacities, and their decisions will affect them. The implications for our industry are very far reaching and I hope the Minister will give some indication of when we are going to see an answer.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate Kirstene Hair on an excellent introduction to the debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for it. I draw the attention of the House to an interest. I receive support from the Good Faith Partnership, which provides a secondee in my office to work with me on migration issues. The secondment has just started in the past few days and I will be placing details in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests later on this week. I also speak as chair of the all-party group on migration, and it is in that capacity that I want to contribute to the debate.
Last year, the all-party group produced a report on the impact specifically on small and medium-sized enterprises of losing access to labour from the European Union post Brexit. We heard evidence from employers and recruiters across a range of sectors—not just agriculture and food processing, although clearly that sector faces an important and very urgent need—all of whom highlighted the need for access to skilled labour, but also to so-called unskilled labour, at times of heightened need. We heard from other seasonal sectors, including air conditioning and central heating engineers, and the hospitality sector, which has peaks at Christmas, Easter and over the summer. The point was made clearly to us that jobs in customer services or catering, for example, while possibly seen as unskilled jobs, cannot be characterised as unskilled in terms of the nature of the activity that needs to be carried out.
The variety of sectors and job roles that reflect the need for seasonal labour, points to the need for a range of tailor-made immigration solutions. As we have heard this afternoon, that should not preclude the upskilling of the domestic workforce and increasing participation among underemployed sectors of the domestic workforce, such as older workers or those who are not in education, employment or training. It is important to say, as have heard this afternoon, that seasonal jobs are not always attractive to UK workers. It is not just that they cannot be bothered to do them in all cases. It may be that they live in the wrong part of the country and have family commitments, and so cannot move to take seasonal work. Low pay may make it simply economically unviable for UK workers to take some of these posts, and the arduous physical nature of the work, which we heard about from Kirstene Hair and others, means that older workers might struggle to take up the hours of work in those jobs.
Already, a number of sectors have expressed alarm about the impact of Brexit on long-term access to labour. As Professor Jonathan Portes said, we need to attend not just to the question of the UK choosing which migrants come to this country but to making sure that the migrant labour that we need chooses to come to us. Yet even as early as the beginning of last year, alarm bells were sounding from a range of employers and recruiters. Lee Biggins, the founder of CV Library, told the drinks business last year that hospitality and agriculture bosses might struggle to find staff as Brexit negotiations got under way. Similar concerns were expressed by Tim Rumney, of the Lake District Hotels Association, in February 2017. As Gillian Keegan pointed out, it is important to note that not just short-term labour market needs but often our long-term needs are met by seasonal workers coming and gaining skills, and then staying on and progressing to fill skills gaps in industries in this country over a longer period.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation reports that recruiters were already struggling to fill some low skilled roles before the 2016 referendum. It points out that increasing labour shortages could lead ultimately to higher costs for consumers as a result of higher recruitment costs, greater bureaucracy to bring in migrant workers and the cost of visas for more migrant workers, which SMEs who gave evidence to our all-party group inquiry would be unable to absorb and would need to pass on to customers. Consumers might also experience a knock-on effect on service levels, and for the workers themselves there would be an increased risk of exploitation and illegal working, which is a concern.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation also says, as we have heard repeatedly this afternoon, that while automation is clearly part of the solution to our labour needs in a number of seasonal sectors, it will be practically and economically viable for only some of the labour currently performed by low-skilled seasonal workers, at least for the foreseeable future. Interim solutions—quite long interim solutions—are therefore needed now for a number of sectors.
Whatever immigration schemes Ministers devise in the coming months as we anticipate our departure from the EU, they must not be solely designed on the basis of EU workers currently working in full-time permanent positions and the need to replace that form of labour in the UK. The evidence points clearly to the need for a range of tailored solutions. We have heard much this afternoon about the possibility of reinstating a seasonal agricultural workers scheme and other sector-specific solutions, although the Institute for Employment Studies points out that too many sector-specific solutions will increase, rather than reduce, complexity for employers.
The focus must be on designing simple and cost-effective reasonably priced application processes, recognising that it is employers who will bear the costs, but that they will pass those costs on to customers at the end of the line. It is not possible to look at blanket approaches to setting salary or skills thresholds, and it is very important that appropriately light-touch processes take place at our borders to enable migrant workers to come in. At the same time, immigration strategy must pay careful attention to the impact on host communities. Local authorities need to be supported and encouraged to develop strategies for integration, even of short-term workers, to improve community cohesion and avoid seasonal workers facing ostracism, isolation and abuse.
Finally, the Government will of course rightly want to give attention to the risks of exploitation and, in its most extreme form, trafficking and abuse. That clearly requires the enforcement of decent working conditions and minimum wages, working with employers and employer bodies to stamp out abuse, and ensuring that there are good sources of independent information and advice available to migrant workers both in their home countries and when they arrive here.
All these strategies are emphasised in the draft global compact on migration, which is now being negotiated at the United Nations. They point to the need for a holistic strategy in the immigration White Paper, which we anticipate in the next few months. I conclude by saying to the Minister that it is important that the strategy and White Paper come forward as soon as possible. Clarity is needed now for businesses and workers alike.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair on securing this debate on an important issue for so many agricultural businesses across the United Kingdom. She described very well the issues and challenges, and I do not intend to repeat them in the short time available to me this afternoon. A number of agricultural businesses in the borders rely on seasonal migrant workers, although not to the same extent as in Angus, so I thought that it was important to make a short contribution to the debate.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to put on record the fact that seasonal workers are very much welcome in the borders and contribute hugely to the local economy. There are businesses such as that of Neil Thomson—of Caverton Mill farm near Kelso—who employs more than 20 seasonal workers to pick over 200 acres of broccoli and cauliflower. These workers are reliable, hard-working and they contribute to the local economy in the Scottish borders. Indeed, one has been kept on permanently and has moved his family to the area.
As others have mentioned, there have been challenges in recruiting seasonal workers in recent years, but we have to be careful about attributing that to Brexit. Across other sectors, including hospitality and healthcare, the number of people coming from the European Union to work here has been falling. That trend started long before the EU referendum was even announced.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point about seasonal workers, but if he looks at the figures for all of Scotland, he will see that almost 50% of the workforce in hospitality in Edinburgh and Glasgow is made up of people who come from elsewhere in the European Union. How would a seasonal workers scheme help that when at the moment, as members of the European Union they can come here freely?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. I would say that this debate is focused on the agricultural sector. There are definitely challenges in other parts of the economy, but that does not remove anything from the fact that in the past 10 years there has been a downward trend in the number of workers who are coming from the EU to work in our economy.
Seasonal work in the United Kingdom now appears less attractive than it was a decade ago because of a range of factors. A number of Members have described those, but the most notable is the drop in the value of the pound. Many voices in the industry favour the reintroduction of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which came to an end following the admission of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU. We now have the opportunity to bring this scheme back or at least to look at something similar—an opportunity that has only been brought about because of Brexit. I join in calls for the United Kingdom Government to look closely at reintroducing the scheme as a way to meeting the seasonal needs of farmers not just across Scotland and in my constituency, but across all the United Kingdom.
A final point I want to make is that this issue starkly highlights the importance of maintaining the United Kingdom’s internal market and the easy movement of staff across the UK—something that the Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh seems unable to understand. Seasonal migrant workers often start working in one part of the United Kingdom and travel across the country on different jobs in one season. The effect of the SNP’s call for a separate immigration policy would make it harder for workers to do that. As Jonnie Hall, the director of policy at the National Farmers Union Scotland said, the last thing that farmers need is a “checkpoint at Berwick”. As is often the case, the needs of the farming sector are the same north and south of the borders, and it is in the farmers’ interest that this is dealt with on a UK-wide basis, rather than on a Scottish-only basis.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way, but if the last thing that the NFU wants is a checkpoint at the border, why does he think that they would appreciate one between here and Europe?
I understand that Lib-Dem party policy is for us to go back into Europe, but the reality is that the British people have voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. We have to accept the democratic decision of our fellow countrymen and women and I do not accept any suggestion that we should veto that or say that they have not made the right decision. We now need to get on with Brexit to deliver the best result for all our constituents—for Scotland and all of the United Kingdom. I appreciate that the Lib Dems do not agree with that, but we must now get on with Brexit as best we can.
As I said, we need to deal with immigration on a UK-wide basis, rather than take a Scotland-only approach. Instead of constantly pushing for differentiation from the United Kingdom, the Scottish Government would better serve farmers by working with their UK counterparts to ensure that we develop a seasonal migrant system to meet the needs of Scottish farmers.
I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Angus again on bringing this important debate to the attention of the House, and I look forward to working closely with her, and the United Kingdom Government, to get the best deal for Scottish farmers.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all here. Happy St David’s day—and happy first day of spring, just in case anybody did not notice. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I commend Kirstene Hair for having secured it.
Many years ago—I suspect before some Members here were born—I worked for the Health and Safety Executive, based in Dundee, and I spent quite a lot of time around Angus and Perthshire visiting small local businesses. One thing that struck me then was that in addition to the significant direct employment in fruit growing and fruit processing in places such as Angus, Perthshire and Aberdeenshire, the number of small, family-owned businesses and other trades and professions that rely on agriculture is massive. There are mechanics, engineers, blacksmiths, lawyers, accountants, and haulage contractors, as well as the visible jobs, with people out working in the fields. Effectively, the whole economy of that part of Scotland is underpinned by our soft fruit and produce industry. That is why it is so important to protect it.
Scottish quality fruit and veg now adds £300 million a year to our GDP. It is 10% of our entire agriculture output—almost as much as the much more obvious Scottish farming industries of dairy and sheep farming, for example. Whatever happens with our relationship with the EU and others, I hope that those who rightly take massive pride in producing some of the best fresh fruit and veg in the world will continue to market it under Scotland, the brand, to draw attention to the fact that it is branded as being as good as anything people can get from anywhere else in the world.
I note that in a single year, one growers co-operative, actually based in Angus, reported a loss of income of £660,000, simply because of labour shortages in a single year. That is one co-operative of 18 growers that is not likely to be any different from a lot of others. This industry and this part of our economy is under severe stress and severe threat. As my hon. Friend Pete Wishart pointed out, it is difficult this year, but if the Government do not act, and act very quickly, next year and the following year could become impossible. This has been an iconic part of Scottish culture for decades, if not centuries, but we could see an end to soft fruit growing in parts of Scotland. I will come on to the UK Government’s response to that potential threat later.
It was reported in The Guardian last summer that a survey by the NFU found that between January and May 2017, farmers in the UK recruited a total of 13,400 workers, 14 of whom were from the United Kingdom—not 14,000 or 1,400, or even 140, but 14 out of almost 13,500 came from the United Kingdom. Other speakers have commented on the complex reasons why it is simply not credible to expect overseas seasonal migrant workers to be replaced by home-grown workers any time in the next 10, 15 or 20 years, and perhaps never at all. The industry will not last that long if we cannot pick the fruit from the fields.
We also have to remember that as well as the potentially disastrous impact on parts of our agriculture sector, the Government’s attitude to immigration—they treat it as numbers to be dragged down at all costs—affects so many other things which, certainly in Scotland and many other parts of the United Kingdom, we should be proud of having built up over the years.
Relative to the size of its population, Scotland possibly has more of the world’s top universities than any other country. Part of the reason for that is the number of overseas students and the number of exceptionally talented and dedicated overseas staff, including research staff and lecturers, who have come here purely as a result of freedom of movement, and who no longer express an interest in coming because they are not sure what their rights will be.
The demands on our NHS and care services are obviously very much in our minds at this time. Those services also rely heavily on incoming workers. I hope that it is not stretching relevance, Madam Deputy Speaker, to give a special mention to a consultant surgeon in Glasgow who this morning walked for three hours in the snow to get to work in Paisley. That is the sort of dedication that we see among NHS workers, regardless of where they have come from.
According to the article from The Guardian that I mentioned earlier—written last year—the director of an employment agency called Hops Labour Solutions, which exists to bring in seasonal workers to support the UK agricultural sector, said:
“The grim reality is that the perception from overseas is we are xenophobic, we’re racist”.
We might take exception to those words—we might like to think that we are not xenophobic or racist—but if that is how we are perceived by even 10% of people who might have been thinking of coming to work in the United Kingdom, we have a problem. It is a sad but undeniable fact that one of the immediate impacts of the vote to leave in the referendum in June 2017 was a massive spike in racist and racially motivated crimes in many part of the UK. Thousands of EU nationals living in the UK have come before Select Committees and told us that they have experienced a significant increase in racially motivated attacks, that they have begun to feel that they are no longer welcome, and that friends who have thought about coming here have been made to feel that they might not be welcome either.
I am not saying that that was one of the Government’s intentions in calling the referendum, and I am certainly not saying that it was the intention of anything like all the 17 million people who voted to leave, but we must face up to the fact that, as one of the consequences of the referendum, a climate or undercurrent has been allowed to develop which makes people from the European Union feel less welcome and less valued than they were before. If the Government continue to ignore or deny that, the problem can only continue to get worse.
The hon. Member for Angus pointed out, very eloquently, that although some parts of our fruit and vegetable growing industry can be mechanised, others cannot at this stage, and it will be several years, if not longer, before that will be possible. Solutions that rely simply on significant investment and mechanism might work in some industries, but they certainly would not work for soft fruit growers.
When we debated the seasonal agricultural workers scheme last year, the then Minister gave an assurance that the scheme could be reintroduced within five to six months if necessary. I suggest that it is now necessary, and that the Government should be seeking to reintroduce the scheme within far less than five to six months if that is at all possible. They clearly accepted that there might be a need to change the bad decision that was made in 2013, and I suggest that the need has now been established.
At a recent Scottish Affairs Committee meeting in Fife, we heard the views of Jonnie Hall of NFU Scotland on that very issue. He told us how frustratingly difficult he found it to “get traction”, as he put it, with the Home Office to even meet and discuss the union’s suggested solutions for dealing with the looming crisis, including SAWS. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on Home Office officials to meet representatives of NFUS and other experts in the sector as a matter of urgency to try to find a way out of this Brexit boorach?
Absolutely, and I would extend that to many other areas of activity, whether in private sector industry or in our greatly stressed public services. Home Office officials need to get out of the office and meet the people who work in agriculture, the health and social care services and universities, and hear why their approach to immigration—whether it is immigration on a permanent basis or migration on a temporary basis—is simply wrong.
I was at the debate when the Select Committee reported the urgent requirement for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme and the five to six-month time limit was mentioned. Is my hon. Friend as baffled as I am over why those in the Home Office are so cloth-eared when it comes to the demands for the scheme? Could it have anything to do with their self-defeating obsession with immigration—with seeing everything through that lens, and stopping people coming to this country?
I do not think that that criticism applies only to the Home Office. I think that it applies to the entire Cabinet and, indeed, the entire Government. There is still far too much of an obsession with immigration as a bad thing that must be brought down at any cost. It is becoming clear that if the Government are to get anywhere close to delivering the headline reduction in immigration that they claim would be a good thing, the health services and the agriculture sector will suffer, as will a great many industries.
I was somewhat surprised by what was said by John Lamont. He made some valuable points, but he is in complete denial about one fact. Although this problem is not entirely the creature of Brexit, and existed to an extent before Brexit, anyone who claims that Brexit is not making the problem worse really needs to return to planet Earth. It is patently obvious what one impact—one inevitable consequence—has been, not only of the result of the vote itself but of the vile xenophobia that characterised so much of the debate. It was always going to be a consequence, and we are seeing it now, whatever the hon. Gentleman may try to tell us. It has made the United Kingdom a less attractive place for people to want to live and work in: it has made us less appealing.
The hon. Gentleman blamed part of that on the fall in the value of the pound. I wonder what might have caused the value of the pound to go through the floor so suddenly, some time towards the end of the third week of June 2016. I wonder what it might have been that upset the international economists and business people at that time of the year. It did not seem to affect the dollar or the euro, so it cannot be blamed on global changes. Perhaps the Government tend to try to blame other factors.
Even the House of Commons Library, which is not generally renowned for taking sides in political debate—indeed, it is rightly renowned for not taking sides in political debate—tells us in the briefing that it prepared for today’s debate that since the closure of SAWS, and particularly in the run-up to the UK’s exit from the European Union, employers have been finding it more difficult to recruit staff from overseas. The Government’s responses, including the assurances that we were given on
There has been mention of a consultation paper published a couple of days ago by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The foreword is written by the Environment Secretary. We in Scotland remember very fondly promises from the Environment Secretary, who assured us that one of the consequences of Brexit would be that Scotland could have control of its own immigration policy. Perhaps the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk would like to go and tell the Environment Secretary that he had clearly taken leave of his senses if he thought that that was ever a possibility.
In all the 64 pages of the consultation paper, the word “seasonal” appears once. The crisis facing parts of our agricultural sector as a result of the inability to attract seasonal workers is hardly even recognised by DEFRA’s flagship new consultation paper—and, presumably, draft policy. When it refers to the labour force that is needed in agriculture, it talks of the investment and skills needed to mechanise. It talks of engineers and science and technology workers. It talks of things that are needed in some parts of agriculture, but those things will make no difference whatsoever to the soft fruit industry, and to other parts of agriculture where mechanisation is simply not realistic. That gives the worrying impression that the soft fruit industry will be allowed, literally, to wither on the ground.
Since the Government wrongly abandoned SAWS in 2013—and we all remember the Home Secretary who made that decision, who knew better than all the farmers, the NFU, NFU Scotland and all the rest of them, who knew more about how to run agriculture than the people who worked in it—the difficulties faced by the sector have been made substantially worse, and will continue to become substantially worse.
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman and I appreciate that this is an important subject in his constituency and he has made some important points, but I point out to the Chamber that if the second debate that was due to take place this afternoon had not been cancelled, the time limit on Back-Bench speeches in this debate would have been approximately seven minutes, which is normal for a debate of this kind on a Thursday afternoon. The reason the second debate was cancelled was not in order that some Members in this debate could make speeches twice as long as they would have done in other circumstances, but because of the very unusual weather conditions under which we are operating. While Members might be aware only of what is happening in this Chamber, I have in mind the hundreds of employees in this building who will have great difficulty getting home to their families today, and every extra minute taken in speeches in here is stopping somebody from getting a train and having to get a later one that might now be cancelled. The hon. Gentleman is a most hon. Gentleman and he normally sticks very carefully to time limits. We do not have a time limit this afternoon, but he has taken twice as long as he would have taken if I had put a time limit on in normal circumstances. I am sure he will bear that in mind.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The ruling you have just made is very important, and I wonder whether it might be worthwhile abandoning this afternoon’s business now so that Members and staff can get home sooner because of the inclement weather.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I have neither the power nor the inclination to abandon the business. I am, however, making an appeal to the decency of Members, and say that sometimes if one is making a point it can be made just as effectively if made more quickly.
I certainly take on board your comments, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I was winding up anyway. Had there been a proposal from the Government to amend the Standing Orders today to bring forward the moment of interruption, I do not think any of us would have opposed that—even those of us who had known since Wednesday that we were not getting home until tomorrow.
Order. Since that is a challenge to a point I have just made from the Chair, I say that it is not always necessary to make rules in order to have people behave with decency and consideration. The hon. Gentleman is one of the most considerate and decent Members of this House and I am making absolutely no criticism of him; I am merely pointing this out, and he is not the only Member who has exceeded the seven minutes that would have been the time limit.
Thank you again, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The scheme was abandoned wrongly, erroneously, arrogantly by a Home Secretary who would not listen to those who would be most affected, and that continues to be the tone of most of what the Government do in relation to both Brexit and almost anything else—and of course they always say it is all the Scottish Government’s fault.
The reason why we are having this debate and having to consider reintroducing this scheme is because of the Government’s continued obsession with freedom of movement being a bad thing that has to be stopped. Freedom of movement of people, and of goods and services, and of ideas and beliefs, is an unqualified, unreservedly good thing, and I want to see it retained as far as possible. So I ask the Minister again, although it is not her decision to make, will she please go back to her Government and say to them that the way to prevent the massive disruption to our agriculture sector, and other sectors of our economy, both public and private, is not simply to urgently reintroduce SAWS to deal with the difficulties we will face this year, but to reconsider their unilateral decisions about freedom of movement, and to look again at whether we want to isolate ourselves from the biggest trading market in Europe? If we remain in the single market and the customs union most of the difficulties raised today will be reduced, if not solved entirely.
Between 2007 and 2013, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme facilitated Romanians and Bulgarians travelling to the UK for seasonal work on farms and, in 2012, the year before the scheme closed, 513 farms used the scheme and almost 21,000 work cards were issued. Seasonal workers from overseas have played a crucial role in the agricultural industry. For all the technology we now see on farms, and for all the automation and robotics, a human hand is still needed for many of the jobs involved in getting food from the farm to the supermarket shelf. As we have heard in the debate, 80,000 people a year make their way to this country to assist in this process. Ensuring a reliable workforce is available is so important, or else we will find ourselves in situations where fruit and crops are left to rot and waste.
There are worrying signs that a shortfall is affecting the industry. Last year, there was a shortage of 15% in seasonal migrant workers in the horticultural sector. The Scottish Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, is currently carrying out an inquiry into immigration. We have heard from a range of sectors who are experiencing, or are concerned about, such shortfalls and pressures. While members of that Committee may ultimately disagree about how we best tackle those problems—some preferring a regional approach, others, such as myself, inclined to look more towards a UK-wide sectoral response—there is no question but that immigration is necessary, and will continue, and we need to ensure that the UK remains an attractive place for individuals to come to work and live.
Immigration is not just necessary; it is also good and desirable. Britain would not even be half as “Great” today if it were not for immigration. It is for these reasons that I am joining calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Angus and many others in the Chamber today for the reintroduction of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which will allow people to come to this country to fill the gaps in our domestic workforce.
Such a scheme would allow us to guarantee access to the skills and labour that our rural businesses need, while also allowing the Government an important element of control over the number of people arriving here for work. Although I accept that immigration and the desire to control it underpinned a significant element of the vote to leave the EU, I cannot accept it was a direction to Government to somehow end immigration to this country and pull up the drawbridge. Rather, I take it as a signal that the British people want the British Government to be able to control the numbers who come here, based on our current needs. A seasonal agricultural workers scheme would allow us to do this, opening up more places at times of high demand and reducing them when the domestic workforce can cover the gaps.
Our post-Brexit approach to immigration should be flexible. The correct level of immigration to the United Kingdom is the amount of immigration we need at any point in time. We must be able to adapt our approach as our society and economy change. Another benefit of a seasonal scheme would be our ability to open it up more widely. Even prior to 2013, only select European countries could take advantage. I would like any new system to be open to anyone from any country who has the necessary skills and expertise.
“well managed by the Home Office” and that
“growers got a supply of efficient labour, migrants received a good wage, British workers were not displaced and integration issues were limited”.
Following such a glowing report, why would we not reintroduce a similar scheme now?
Of course, in addition to any new seasonal workers scheme, I would like to see the Government taking steps to bolster the skills of the domestic workforce here in the UK and to do more to encourage locals into this kind of work. But it is important to recognise what employers are telling us: in this line of work, it is hard to recruit workers in sufficient numbers from the UK. That is the reality, so we must have a system that allows us access to the labour we need.
Contrary to common belief, a lot of this seasonal work is skilled. It is undoubtedly hard and time-consuming. The people who come to this country contribute to our thriving rural communities, and I am delighted to support a motion that would make it easier for that to happen. I urge the Government to take forward the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus in the motion.
Those of us who have taken the time to go across the road to read the EU exit analysis briefing—which has largely been leaked and is now in the public domain—will know that the agriculture industry will be the most impacted upon of all the industries following Brexit, and that is in addition to the effect of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which, as we have heard, came to a close at the end of 2013.
The scheme was set up in 1945 to address post-war labour shortages, and more recently it allowed fruit and vegetable growers to employ migrant workers from the European Union and beyond to do short-term, low-skilled agricultural work for a maximum of six months. The reason given by the coalition Government for the scheme’s closure was that there were already sufficient numbers of workers to meet the labour needs in the agriculture and horticulture sectors. However, that has proven not to be the case. Since the closure of the scheme, the industry has been suffering a shortfall in workers, crops have been left unharvested and the very viability of the industry has been left in the balance. Many in the sector are calling for the scheme to be revived, or for something similar to be put in place.
As Helen Whately stated, by the very nature of seasonal work and of having a short employment period, the work has proved historically to have been unattractive to British citizens and the numbers required in these rural areas often far outstrip the unemployed population in surrounding areas. The EU has introduced protection for seasonal workers in the agriculture sector in the form of the EU seasonal workers directive, which was adopted by the UK in 2014 and sets out the parameters that states must adhere to. Action is needed now, as 43% of labour providers do not expect to be able to source and supply sufficient workers for the food manufacturing and distribution sectors in 2018, meaning that food will be rotting in the fields because of labour shortages. If the Government truly care about supporting the agriculture and horticulture industry, they should introduce a new source scheme now or ensure that when the immigration Bill is introduced special attention is given to migrant workers that are needed to support this and other industries.
We need a long-term solution to labour shortages in the UK and the Government should not let British farms go under because of their arbitrary immigration targets. We need to make sure that the Government’s approach to Brexit does not adversely impact jobs and prosperity and that we have an immigration policy based on the needs of the economy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair on securing the debate and I shall speak briefly.
Let me start by saying that, without wishing to be unhelpfully competitive, I think that the issue of migrant workers has been shown to matter perhaps more in my constituency of Boston and Skegness than anywhere else in the UK. I say that not because of the hugely valuable contribution made by people from outside Lincolnshire to our largely agricultural economy over many centuries, or because of the quality of the brassicas, but because it was the issue of migrant workers from primarily eastern Europe that in large part provoked the stronger vote for Brexit in Boston and Skegness than anywhere else in the country.
I have said before in this House that we should not be shy of saying that in certain parts of the UK immigration was for the great majority the prime reason for voting to leave the EU, and I say it again now. I hope that this debate will be part of the process that secures for Britain not only the labour force we need for the future of our agricultural sector but an immigration policy that carries with it popular consent and does not precipitate the kind of widespread discontent that was in part expressed during the debates we heard around the referendum.
Let me emphasise that my constituency has always welcomed seasonal workers—at first from the midlands, then from Ireland, then from Portugal and then from the expanded EU countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and beyond. The many shops that might otherwise be empty in my constituency and that call themselves eastern European supermarkets now serve the vibrant new communities that exist because of seasonal work. Although that vibrant new economy is a great thing, the social complications of a huge new community have been hugely challenging for many in my constituency. The lack of a functioning immigration policy primarily based around seasonal workers, as a result of Tony Blair’s decision not to take up transitional options, served only to highlight the real need for a functioning seasonal agricultural workers scheme, such as that which we used to have and which I hope we will have again in the future.
A third of Boston’s population is now made up of people from abroad who most often came for seasonal work, exercising the rights they had acquired under freedom of movement. That approach did not work for my constituency then and it would be wrong to suggest that it would now. What we need is an approach that acknowledges that the season, so called, is in fact now much longer—partly because of the associated industries, as we have heard—and that also acknowledges that, when we have freedom of movement such as that which we have seen previously, it results in significantly increased pressures on public services and significant social challenges.
The scheme we are talking about today is needed for both economic and social reasons. It is vital we get this right and that we seize the opportunities that it might present. I would like to plant three ideas in the Minister’s enormous mind. First, a SAW scheme should be demand-led. The Migration Advisory Committee should pay heed to the possibilities of mechanisation, which I believe are genuinely enormous—I would suggest to my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston, were she in her place, that there is no part of the industry that could not in due course be mechanised. But we need to pay attention to the needs of the industry now. That is of course not to say that enormous numbers are always necessary, but the NFU and large major operators such as those in my constituency must have their voices heard.
Secondly, we should explicitly tie the conditions in which a person lives and the consequent pressures they place on local services and local housing supply to the supply of seasonal work permits. I would argue that a sponsor, either a major operator or a properly regulated gangmaster, should have to indicate the length of time a person will definitely be paid for, regardless of what work they are doing, and they should have to prove that they will be housed appropriately. Properly done, this is a real opportunity to tackle some of the modern slavery that taints agricultural work and on which this Government have already done so much.
Thirdly and finally, I would ask that through the sponsorship scheme I have just spoken about we might be able to have a little nudging influence over regional patterns of migration. There can be no border posts between Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, but it might allow us to monitor and predict better local pressures on some public services, although of course changes to free movement will affect that much more.
I conclude by saying that this economically vital move can be a huge opportunity—an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past and to shape our country for the better. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider both sides of that coin as she works on this vital project.
I congratulate Kirstene Hair on securing this important debate and agree with her that the issue is now becoming critical in dealing with some of the pressing issues we have in both of our constituencies. I could not help thinking of her predecessor, Mike Weir, who was such a doughty champion of agricultural businesses up and down Angus. I think it was Mike who, in making informed and proper interventions in a series of debates, first warned of the danger of losing the seasonal agricultural workers scheme and the impact that would have on businesses in her constituency and mine. We owe a great deal to Mike Weir for his work over the years.
I represent some of the finest agricultural businesses in Scotland. Strathmore, shared by me and the hon. Member for Angus—I actually used to represent her part of Strathmore years and years ago—and the Carse of Gowrie could perhaps be described as the bread basket of eastern Scotland. The town of Blairgowrie in my constituency is almost exclusively synonymous with the soft fruit industry. Much of the heritage of east Perthshire is bound together with tales of the berry farms and stories of luggies, cleeks and dreels. This is all at risk because of the cloth-eared approach of this Government to the issue of seasonal agricultural workers and their self-defeating and damaging obsession with seeing absolutely everything through the lens of immigration. For this Government, immigration is something that has to be stopped and that has to be curbed. What we are seeing now in our agricultural businesses is that this has become collateral and a real issue that now threatens the viability and survival of many farms in my constituency.
I tried to figure out why the Government were so resistant to proposing a seasonal agricultural workers scheme. It can only be about immigration, and if it is not the Minister can get up and tell me why there is that reticence. It is all about immigration, isn’t it? I am seeing a blank look, so I presume that it is. I know that everything about leaving the European Union is, for this Government, about stopping, curbing and doing everything they can to stop people coming into this country.
The hon. Member for Angus referred to the helpful and useful report from NFU Scotland that demonstrates the scale of the reliance on foreign and migrant labour of businesses in my constituency—and hers, and those of all other Members from Scotland. I know it is hard to believe, as we look outside and see the snow brought in by the “beast from the east” settling on the good city of London, but the first British strawberries of the season have already appeared. They have come from a place in south Wales, and they have beaten the record set more than 10 years ago in February 2006. This demonstrates the scale of the innovation in the industry, the technology that is being applied, and the way in which the season has now been extended by incorporating new planting methods and the use of polytunnels. The extended cropping period now usually lasts from April to the end of October. It is fantastic to be able to get a punnet of strawberries before the Easter holidays and still to be enjoying them beyond Halloween. That is the type of season that we now have, and it is an issue that we need to address.
However, something remains the same in the business despite the advent of new technology, and that is that someone has to ensure that the crop is planted, maintained and harvested. Someone still has to do that work. We have heard stories from other Members about this. When I was a young lad, that work was traditionally done by young local people. The young Wishart, for example, would regularly head out to the berry fields with his luggy by his side, enjoying the prospect of being in the open air and supplementing his meagre pocket money over the course of the summer. Then, in the tattie holiday, I would be howking the tatties oot the fields. That was the sort of thing that we always enjoyed. That work paid for my first musical instruments. That is the contribution that seasonal work in the fields made to the aspiring Wishart as a musician. Now, practically all that soft fruit is lifted by people from the other side of Europe, on whom our producers rely almost exclusively to get the crop in.
I was in this House when the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was put in place, and I remember the debates that we had on it. It has to be said that the Labour Government were always quite keen to get shot of it. They were not the most—how shall I put this—friendly Government towards the countryside and agricultural issues. Those issues were just not part and parcel of the way in which the Labour Government looked at things, and why should they be? Very few of their Members represented countryside areas. Then the Conservative Government came in, and we were told not to worry about the demise of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme because we were in the European Union. We were told that people from the accession countries—as they then were—would regularly come in because of freedom of movement, and that we would not need the scheme any more because there would be a steady supply of labour.
Well, that has worked out perfectly, hasn’t it? We are just about to leave the European Union, and all of a sudden, that source of migrant labour will diminish. I intervened on Tom Brake, who made that key point. We will probably just about get by, this year. I am not certain that all the businesses in my constituency will manage to survive, but I think that we will somehow muddle through because we still have that access to eastern European labour. However, that will go next year unless we have transitional arrangements in place. Will the Minister give us an assurance that there will be transitional arrangements until the Government get their act together? Next year will be critical, because our usual source of labour will end. I am not going to get into a debate about where we will look for other migrant workers. We have heard all this stuff about Ukraine and Sri Lanka, but that sounds like fantasy when we have had such a good source of migrant labour up to now.
The other massive disincentive that we have heard about today is the exchange rate. These seasonal agricultural workers could now go and work in more clement conditions in Spain and elsewhere in southern Europe where they would be earning euros, so the exchange rate would not be an issue for them. The Government should not pretend that the declining exchange rate has nothing to do with their chaotic Brexit. It has absolutely everything to do with it. We have taken a double hit when it comes to seasonal migrant agricultural workers: we are losing them not only through the lack of freedom of movement but because this chaotic Brexit has ensured that they earn less money when they come here.
I have probably visited all the farms in my area on several occasions, as well as some in the constituency of the hon. Member for Angus, and I have found an incredible melting pot of people from different cultures and nationalities who come to Scotland to sample a different experience. Over the years, we have seen people enjoying the experience of being in Scotland at all sorts of cultural evenings and ceilidhs. Those people are the brightest and best of their countries. We think of them just as fruit pickers, but they are the students who will soon have their own hard-earned euros. We want to give them a positive experience so that they will come back to Scotland to spend them. That is soft power at its very best. Seasonal agricultural workers are good for the producer, good for the migrants who come here, good for the local communities and good for our nation. Minister, sort it out!
I have the James Hutton Institute in my constituency, and it does fantastic work to ensure that our crops—mainly raspberries and strawberries, but also potatoes—are more resilient, productive and pest-resistant. The people who work there are primarily European, and they are thinking about going away. Why would they stay in a country that is telling them that they are the source of all its problems and ills, and whose defining priority is to ensure that people like them stop coming here? Why would they continue to work here when they have transferable skills and could go elsewhere, where they would be made to feel much more welcome? From the field to the laboratory, we are dependent on that labour, and that is what we are putting at risk.
I have only one message for the Minister, because we have debated this time and again: get it sorted. Put forward a scheme so that we can go back to our farmers and tell them that there will be something in place that will allow them to harvest their crop. Some 750 tonnes of Scottish soft fruit production is dependent on the Minister doing the right thing. Otherwise, we could end up in a situation in which, despite having one of the best products in the world, our shelves will be packed with foreign produce. I have only three words for the Minister: get it sorted.
I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I will keep my remarks brief, following your wise words.
I congratulate Kirstene Hair on opening the debate, and all other Members who have contributed to it. There is clearly a consensus that the Government need to take urgent action. Labour would take decisive action to reinstate the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. We would put jobs and prosperity at the centre of our approach to Brexit. We would not sacrifice crops and British farming businesses in order to please factions of the Conservative party.
Farming and agriculture have the most pressing need for seasonal migrant workers. The Association of Labour Providers estimates that between 90% and 95% of seasonal workers in food processing and agriculture are from other EU countries, mainly Romania and Bulgaria. The sector is already having difficulty finding labour to meet its needs. Even before we voted to the leave the EU, businesses were calling for the Government to act to address the labour shortage. A report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee found that:
“The current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply.”
The Committee was also concerned that the Government did not seem to recognise the scale of the problem.
In his speech to the National Farmers Union, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs finally acknowledged the extent of the problem, but he did not commit the Government to doing anything about it. He said:
“It’s already the case that the supply of labour from EU27 countries is diminishing as their economies are recovering and growing… I also understand that you need to see action quickly. Not least to deal with imminent pressures in the year ahead. The NFU has put forward strong and, to my mind, compelling arguments for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.”
But he stopped there; he did not commit to taking any action.
The only commitment that the Government have given is that “the Migration Advisory Committee is looking into it.” That is not good enough, because the MAC will not report until September, after the end of this year’s peak season. Businesses need to know in order to plan for next season. Also, the remit of the MAC’s investigation is very broad, so there is no guarantee that seasonal migrant workers will be central to its recommendations, or that it will find in favour of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Even if it does, how much longer will it take for the Government to implement it?
Other sectors are also reliant on seasonal migrant workers, such as hospitality, tourism and care work, to name a few. We have just gone through a winter crisis. The national health service is turning away desperately needed staff because Britain has hit the cap on skilled visas for the third month in a row. Cambridge University Hospitals states that the cap has prevented it recruiting three doctors—two for intensive care and one specialist in liver and pancreatic surgery. We need certainty for many different sectors, and a long-term solution to labour shortages in the UK’s most important industries.
Labour will not let British farmers go under because of factional infighting and arbitrary immigration targets. Our approach to Brexit will be for jobs and prosperity first. Labour is for fair rules and reasonable management of migration. We will design our immigration policy based on the needs of the economy. We will not do what this Government are doing and say, “This is our immigration policy,” and then work out afterwards what that means for the economy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her for the eloquent way in which she made her points. I have absolutely no doubt that her constituents have an extremely effective representative in this House.
I am grateful, too, for all the other speeches we heard this afternoon. There has been a great deal of consensus, as Afzal Khan rightly pointed out. We have had a series of well-informed contributions, although early on I felt that I should perhaps have had lunch first, given the wide variety of produce we got to hear about. I thank Peter Grant for reminding me that today is the first day of spring.
This Government place great value on the UK’s food and farming industries. We recognise them as crucial to the UK economy and to the fabric of rural Britain. Let me be clear that I say that both as a representative of the Government and in a personal capacity. The constituency I have the honour to represent covers 162 square miles, and I reassure Pete Wishart, who yelled from a sedentary position, “You need to get out into the fields”, that I certainly do so in my constituency. I am astonished to hear that he was in the House when the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was originally introduced, as that happened in 1945. He is clearly ageing extremely well.
My constituency is far smaller than the constituency of Angus, but it is still large and has sizeable rural areas, so I am very aware of the role that the farming community plays in shaping the rural economy and preserving the countryside—to say nothing of the vital role it performs in putting food on our plates.
As hon. Members know, this week the Government published “Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit”. I am delighted to have the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend George Eustice here with me this afternoon, and he will no doubt concur that we want to see a more dynamic and more self-reliant agriculture industry as we continue to compete internationally, supplying products of the highest quality to the domestic market and increasing our exports. Alongside that, we want a reformed agricultural and land management policy to deliver a better and richer environment in our country.
As we have heard, there is a huge opportunity for UK agriculture to improve its competitiveness by developing the next generation of food and farming technology. I reassure hon. Members that their comments about automation in soft fruit picking have not fallen on cloth ears—I am very conscious that huge parts of the sector are reliant on arduous manual labour.
We want to help attract more of our graduates and domestic workforce into this vibrant industry. Importantly, the White Paper also addresses the issue of apprenticeships. We will create more apprenticeships, widen participation and create progression for apprentices. Our reforms will help meet the skills needs of employers by putting them in control and enabling them to work with education providers to develop their workforce now and in the future. We heard that message from across the House. My hon. Friends the Members for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), and my right hon. Friend Mr Hayes, all mentioned the need to make working in the sector more attractive to our young people.
We have heard much this afternoon about the UK’s exit from the European Union and the issues that that brings for the labour force. The Government have been very clear from the start that our first priority is to safeguard the position of the 3 million EU citizens already in the UK and of the British citizens living in Europe. The practical consequence is that all EU citizens currently working in the UK, whether they are fruit pickers or farm managers, can stay and settle in the UK if they so choose.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in her Florence speech last year, it is our intention that, for around two years after we leave, EU citizens will still be able to come and go and to work in any capacity with a registration system, so there will be no cliff edge for employers. Only yesterday, we set out what the rules will be for those who arrive during the implementation period, so that individuals planning to live, study or work in the UK after March 2019 will know what the arrangements will be if they want to stay for longer than two years. It is crucial to business that those arriving during the implementation period will have certainty that they can stay for the long term.
We have clearly stated throughout the negotiations that we value EU citizens and the contribution they make to the economic, social and cultural fabric of the UK. Our offer is that those EU citizens and their family members who arrive, are resident and have registered during the implementation period will be eligible, after the accumulation of five years’ continuous and lawful residence, to apply for indefinite leave to remain. That was an issue that Tom Brake raised.
For the time being, the UK remains a member of the European Union, with all the rights and obligations that membership entails. Employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors, and elsewhere, are free to continue to recruit EU workers to meet their labour needs. This debate is very timely, in that it follows the publication last week by the Office for National Statistics of two important sets of numbers. The first were the quarterly net migration statistics, which show that although the rate of European net migration has slowed, it is still positive. The ONS figures indicated that in the year ending September 2017 there were 90,000 more EU citizens in the UK than there were a year earlier. Secondly, the ONS published the labour force statistics, which demonstrate that in the period October to December 2017 there were 100,000 more EU citizens in the UK labour force than there were a year earlier, including 79,000 more Romanians and Bulgarians. Of course, I appreciate that there is a difference between established workers and seasonal workers of the kind who predominate in agriculture, but it is important that we recognise that there are many EU citizens in the UK and that there are more than there were at the time of the referendum.
In 2013, the last seasonal agricultural workers scheme was abolished, on the independent advice of the MAC. We know that since then the agricultural sector has been working hard to recruit the labour it requires. The hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned an important aspect of this—the treatment and condition of workers who come over to this country. It is important that we continually have an eye to modern slavery, that we look at the conditions in which people are living and that they are paid the minimum wage. In an important part of the review that we undertook with Matthew Taylor, he emphasised the need to make sure that employees had good conditions and indeed had payslips. That remains a priority for the Home Office.
We recognise the concerns raised by Members from across the House about labour shortages. That is one reason why we have commissioned the MAC to conduct a review of the UK labour market’s reliance on EU labour and the read-across to the industrial strategy. I know that the MAC has received many submissions from within the agricultural sector and from DEFRA—I say that to reassure the hon. Member for Bristol East. They will weigh heavily in the MAC’s deliberations and recommendations. My door is always open to representations, and Home Office officials regularly meet representatives from all sectors of the economy, from business and from academia—
Given that many Members took a great deal of time, I am not going to take any interventions.
I also assure Members that we keep the situation under constant review, referring specifically to a seasonal agricultural workers scheme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made that point clearly when he addressed the National Farmers Union conference last week. That applies equally to all sectors of the economy. We have heard a little this afternoon about tourism and other sectors that might also be affected.
This Government are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our negotiations to leave the EU, including for our world-leading—
No, I am not going to give way. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues took many minutes up earlier.
As I was saying, we are determined to get the best deal, including for our world-leading food and farming industry. In the meantime, we will continue to support the industry, to work with it and to review the situation going forward. I would like the industry to be assured that it has friends in government. I look forward to discussing these issues again and to keeping the recommendations under close review, and I will be appearing shortly before the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when I am sure this matter will be raised—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also heard you when you exhorted people to keep their contributions short. The hon. Gentleman has made many contributions from a sedentary position, some of which I have even deigned to answer. As I said, I will look forward to continuing to discuss these matters with colleagues across government and to making sure that the views of the agricultural sector, which have been expressed so effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, continue to be heard. I conclude by, again, thanking all Members for speaking and thanking my hon. Friend for initiating this debate.
The contributions of all Members on both sides of the Chamber and from throughout our entire country have provided a hugely insightful and powerful case for our seasonal migrant workforce. The passion for the British farming industry is palpable. I know that many other Members wished to contribute today but were stopped in their tracks by the weather conditions.
I am delighted at the Minister’s positive remarks about securing the future of our soft fruit and veg industry in the ongoing changing conditions. In my view, the arguments are clear and the solution is clear. I shall continue to urge the Government to carry on their work to ensure that farmers are supported and to end this unnecessary tortuous wait for a system to be implemented. We desperately need British produce to be available on supermarket and shop shelves at a price that is affordable. As I have said before and will say again, I will continue this campaign until I get the outcome that I believe the British farmers want and the migrant workers deserve, and I will do so for Angus and for the whole United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
recognises that seasonal migrant workers make a substantial and positive impact on the UK economy;
believes that easy access to seasonal migrant workers is vital for economic prosperity;
and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals to allow businesses to continue to access seasonal migrant workers from EU and non-EU countries.