Amendment 70

Agriculture Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 17th September 2020.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch:

Moved by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

70: After Clause 34, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to sustain the UK agricultural industry workforce(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, lay before Parliament a strategy outlining the steps that Her Majesty’s Government proposes to take to—(a) ensure an appropriate supply of seasonal agricultural workers,(b) increase the number of people undertaking—(i) practical training, and(ii) formal qualificationsrelating to agricultural work,(c) ensure agricultural workers have sufficient access to—(i) financial advice,(ii) affordable housing,(iii) mental health support, and(iv) any other support the Secretary of State deems appropriate, and (d) ensure agricultural workers are subject to fair sectoral terms and conditions.(2) In preparing the strategy under subsection (2), the Secretary of State must consult—(a) other relevant UK Ministers,(b) the Scottish Ministers,(c) the Welsh Ministers,(d) the Northern Ireland Department, and(e) bodies that appear to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of the UK agricultural industry.”

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I move Amendment 70 in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and my noble friend Lord Whitty. I tabled a similar amendment in Committee and we had an excellent debate, with considerable support around the Chamber. I was rather hoping, therefore, that the Minister would have heard the case and taken action to follow it up—but, sadly, that hope was in vain. So I now bring back a variation, which includes my noble friend Lord Judd’s very sensible addition of access to affordable housing.

Our amendment is fairly modest. It would simply require the Government to draw up and publish a strategy to address the concerns about the provisions for agricultural workers set out in the amendment. As we argued, the workforce will be fundamental to delivering the changes in farming practice envisaged in this Bill. There are about half a million people working in the agricultural sector across the UK, and their skills will need to change.

The sector is about to experience a huge transformation, moving from low skill to high-tech, and the workforce will need the training and resources to adapt to the new world. We already know that robotics, precision farming, and data capture and analysis will become commonplace. Add to this mix the new requirements to understand biodiversity, soil and plant health, and the operation of ELMS, and we get a flavour of the challenges ahead. The sector has previously been characterised by low skill and low pay. But now there is an opportunity to make employment in the agricultural sector an exciting proposition for younger people, but only if we tackle the structural problems that hold back rewards and make it difficult to have a career and a long-term future in the sector.

Clearly, there is work taking place on a new training regime, and I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Curry, talk about this during the debate in Committee. I know that he regrets that he will not be able to contribute to the debate today. I very much welcome his proposal for a professional body to raise the profile of the sector, combined with nationally recognised qualifications and standards. I look forward to their rollout. But the training has to go hand in hand with decent pay and conditions. It is not enough for the Government to refer to the gangmasters legislation and the minimum wage. All these do is guarantee wages at slightly above poverty levels. These are not the sort of wages that will attract new entrants into the sector, and we know that wages have continued to stagnate since the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, as well as workers having to work longer hours. Our amendment looks to the Government to draw up proposals for fair sectoral pay and conditions, with an effective career structure.

We also had a good discussion in Committee about the need for affordable housing for the workforce. Many workers are provided with accommodation by their employer, but this has its own problems, such as restricting mobility and opportunities to move to better paid work. However, the alternative of finding affordable homes in rural areas on the open market remains a major barrier to new entrants coming into the sector. The lack of opportunities for farming tenancies is an additional factor, which of course is something that we addressed in the previous debate. Again, this is an issue that the Government will need to address if we are to attract the next generation to work in agriculture.

Finally, we know there are continuing health challenges in the sector. The level of farm accidents remains high, and the isolation and strain can lead to unacceptably severe mental health issues and, very sadly, suicides. We urgently need measures to address these challenges and provide tailored health interventions for the special circumstances of working in this sector. I was pleased to hear from the Minister about some of the initiatives taking place, but clearly more can be done.

Our amendment is modest, but no less important. I fear that the Government will continue to address the workforce problems on a piecemeal basis, rather than as a holistic and wholesale challenge. I hope that the Minister can persuade me in his response that I am wrong about that. In the meantime, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 9:30 pm, 17th September 2020

The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I thank and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and those noble Lords who have added their names to this amendment, on bringing it forward again.

I would be interested to know from my noble friend the Minister what share of the workforce agricultural workers make up. My impression is that their numbers have declined quite steeply in recent times. If that is the case, there is a strong argument for hoping to maintain a sustainable agricultural industry workforce. Clearly, many smaller farms are relying expressly on family members, but we are hoping to rely on SAWS—the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—to help farmers and growers. I believe that the numbers are increasing, and they will make a big contribution.

I have a question that I would like to put to my noble friend, which I think was raised in Committee, although I do not recall the answer. Subsection 1(c) of the new clause proposed by Amendment 70 refers to ensuring that

“agricultural workers have sufficient access to … financial advice”.

The number of providers of such advice is quite large already; I do not know whether the noble Baroness is thinking of a new source. In our earlier debates on the Bill’s provisions, we discussed the proposal that financial advice be provided to those applying for the scheme. Under the new scheme, what financial advice will be available to ensure a sustainable workforce? Am I right in thinking that agricultural societies and charities might have a role to play in this regard, in guiding farmers to sources of income and providing advice for the workforce in this sector?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

My Lords, this is an absolutely first-class proposed new clause. It is completely rounded in many ways.

I want to deal with the first part of the amendment, which relates to seasonal workers. Again, I plead guilty because I have some history here. I realise that it means seasonal workers, and not overseas workers, some of whom are permanent—indeed, in many of our meat plants and abattoirs, their occupations are permanent. Returning to seasonal workers, we have a problem. I plead guilty to the fact that when I was the Home Office immigration and nationality Minister in 2001-02, it crossed my desk that we had to abandon the seasonal workers scheme because we were getting ready for the accession of eight new EU members in 2004, where we would recruit openly, and it was always known that Romania and Bulgaria would be ready-made sources of agricultural workers.

The one thing about the previous scheme that was almost unique was that it was based, in a way, on higher education around the world. We had, I think, workers from over 100 countries who came to the UK on a seasonal basis. I was told at the Home Office, “The thing is, they all went back home.” That was the whole point. It was very much based on higher education—they had courses to go back to, but Britain probably benefited economically for much of their time here.

Now, we are leaving the EU and we have not done anything. It is no good the Home Office simply saying that we have to recruit British people. That has not worked this year, notwithstanding the problem with the virus, and it will not work next year either. Therefore, it is not about turning the clock back, but we need a professional, strategic seasonal workers scheme. In many ways, we are unique in the things that we grow, in our climate and in the difficulty of recruiting our own people on a seasonal basis. It used to be easy to do in my younger days, as I know—as an engineering apprentice, I picked fruit in Scotland.

The fact of the matter is that we had a scheme that worked. As I say, the only reason we abandoned it was in getting ready for the accession of eight new countries to the EU—but we are leaving the EU, are we not? The point is that it was not that seasonal with the eight new countries.

It is not easy, I know, having been at the Home Office in the years I mentioned. When I turned up at Defra in 2006-08, I was on the receiving end, and thought, “Oh dear me, I made a mistake there.” Even though we were recruiting lots, we were still in trouble with the flexibility on our farms. We have now reached a point where we ought to have such a scheme. The Home Office should not be concerned or worried about it. All the evidence shows that it was based on higher education. The students were flexible; they were in different academic years and came from around the world, so they fitted in quite well. As I say, they came from more than 100 countries—and they went back home. The Home Office seems to be obsessed with people coming to this country and staying here. That is not what the scheme was for.

Having made that point earlier, I do not wish to say anything else except that I agree very much with what my noble friend said about the work of the noble Lord, Lord Curry. I absolutely 100% support the thrust of this rounded amendment.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, I strongly support this amendment, as indeed I did in Committee. I thank my noble friend for being so resolute in standing by it. I express my appreciation for the way in which she so warmly welcomed my small but important amendment in Committee; it is now incorporated in the proposals before us.

The position on housing can be dire for those who wish to work on the land. It is simply impossible to find housing that is affordable. The absence of other public services and support services is a great hazard too because, let us face it, so much of the countryside has been turned into a middle-class urban extension.

Affordable housing is crucial, but the main point that I want to make in support of the amendment as a whole is that we can debate how we want the land organised, arrangements for ownership and so on, but in the end it is the motivation, quality, training and preparation of the workforce who are going to work the land that is crucial. This amendment is the result of an utterly sensible understanding that if we want to have successful agriculture, we need an enlightened, positive approach to the preparation of people, particularly young people, wanting to enter the profession in order that they may be as well equipped as possible to work it effectively.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, this is indeed an excellent amendment. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the other noble Lords who signed it. It would make a fantastic improvement to the Bill and to the future of our farming industry because it takes such a wide-ranging and holistic look at the agriculture and land management workforce, including training, mental health, financial health and, of course, affordable housing. Affordable housing is hard enough to find anywhere in Britain, but on the land it is even harder.

Noble Lords know that the Bill represents quite a sea change in our approach to land management and is an opportunity to craft a much greener future. We need to train and develop what one could call a new land army to seize this opportunity. The future needs new skills, new knowledge and a new passion for our natural world. Without a workforce plan we will fail to deliver the intended changes, so I think the Government should embrace this opportunity and accept the amendment.

At the very least, the Minister should undertake to conduct a broad and far-reaching workforce review and planning process. I know that we keep asking for plans for definitive actions but they really are necessary and they are so lacking in the Bill. In particular, what conversations has the Minister had with colleagues in the Home Office about the post-Brexit migration system and the availability of highly motivated people from all over the world who would like to come to Britain to contribute to what I hope is going to be our greener farming system?

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I have added my name to Amendment 70. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, laid out the case for it very well and I support her comments.

Both at Second Reading and in Committee, Members of this Chamber raised the issues of the safety of agricultural workers and their access to training. Despite safety measures, it is not uncommon for farmers to have fatal or life-changing accidents during the normal course of their working day. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to the levels of mental illness and suicide among the farming community. Training is important to help prevent this, and it is vital, too, to ensure that new methods and technological advances which could make their lives easier are also readily available.

I welcome the addition of affordable housing to the list of things that the Government must ensure. We have debated previously the dire lack of affordable housing for farmers and those who work on the land. Often, this is due to second home owners, who push up the price of homes for local people both to buy and to rent. The amendment would help overcome that barrier.

I also welcome the inclusion of the proposed new paragraph that would ensure an adequate supply of seasonal workers—a matter that I have spoken about previously. I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.

The farming day is extremely long—a bit like being on the Agriculture Bill—especially at certain times of the year, such as during harvest. The farmer has little time to spend away from the land, and it is therefore important that training is available both online and at a convenient time and place.

Agriculture is an industry like many others. Other industrial workers have health and safety measures that protect them, and access to training to help them improve in their performance and jobs. There are no reasons why agricultural workers should not also have access to this advantage.

I know that the Minister agrees with the thrust of the amendment. I hope that he will be able to accept the arguments that have been made and agree to the amendment.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:45 pm, 17th September 2020

My Lords, again, all the topics raised in the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, are worthy of a much longer debate—no doubt at another time. The amendment highlights the absolute importance of our agricultural workforce. It is important to recall that, with the changes that have occurred and the way that farming is currently done, very often the farmer and his family constitute the entirety of the workforce, compared with the time when, even on smaller farms, many more people would have been employed.

This Government wish to see a strong and resilient workforce across both permanent and seasonal roles. This year has seen initiatives such as the successful Pick For Britain campaign, and Defra will ensure that we continue to recruit British workers into the agricultural sector.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that we have held discussions with the Home Office. The seasonal workers pilot, held this year, has engaged thousands of workers to travel to work on UK farms, with 6,161 visas issued so far this year—that is the figure that I have with me tonight. The results of the pilot will be very important in enabling the Government to shape and inform future policy on the seasonal workforce.

It is a priority of the Government to ensure an agricultural sector that is not only successful and effective but one in which workers are treated fairly. Skills and training in agriculture will be of increasing importance to enable an innovative, productive and competitive agricultural sector which invests in people and their skills. The needs of agricultural businesses are always changing, and it is critical that skills providers can keep pace. This is particularly important as elements of horticulture and agriculture become increasingly technical and specialised, with advances in technology and automation.

In reference to a question my noble friend Lady McIntosh asked me, agriculture now employs 1.2% of the workforce. That is 476,000 people, 300,000 of whom are permanent agricultural workers—think what that was before mechanisation, when there were probably millions of people working on the land.

Training must recognise the role that advanced land management skills will play in this sector in future and further respond to any changes to requirements caused more immediately, for instance, by the impact of coronavirus. Work is currently ongoing to support this through the agricultural productivity task force of the Food and Drink Sector Council and the skills leadership group. I will send the noble Lord, Lord Curry, a copy of my remarks tonight; I much regret that he is not with us. This was an important point raised. This work aims to remove the fragmentation in the current farming training landscape. It will enable the industry to drive forward a greater uptake of skills, creating clear career-development pathways and promoting the sector as a progressive, professional and attractive career choice. Additionally, we continue to support the work of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, AHDB, which is creating new methods of training to assist in the recruitment and training of seasonal workers.

The Government also fund apprenticeships for training in agricultural occupations. There are currently 32 high- grade apprenticeship standards available in the agriculture, environmental and animal care sector, ranging from level 2 general farm worker to level 6 agricultural/horticultural professional adviser. Employer groups are working with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to develop a further seven standards. In 2018-19, there were 7,000 enrolments for apprenticeships in the agriculture, horticulture and animal care sectors.

In higher education, the UK is home to many internationally renowned specialist universities that offer highly technical courses covering food production, animal sciences, engineering and sustainable business, among many others. The UK boasts research institutions that are leading the world in understanding crops and livestock. I think particularly of the association of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, with Rothamsted as an example of the really outstanding research institutions on which we and the world will rely.

The amendment also raises the important issue of mental health. The mental health of all sections of the population, including farm workers and those living in rural areas, must surely be a top-order priority. I think we in our generation are all very much more aware of the imperative of addressing this than previous generations, which went through many travails. We are at last recognising and tackling this much better, but there is undoubtedly much more to do.

Defra has for many years provided annual funding to the Farming Community Network, FCN, for pastoral and practical support. The FCN has approximately 400 volunteers located throughout England and Wales who provide free, confidential pastoral and practical support to anyone who seeks help. The Rural Payments Agency works closely with Farming Help organisations to support the farming community in England. That includes having hardship arrangements in place for farmers facing financial difficulties.

Defra also supports the well-being of farmers through a programme of research and is carrying out an initial phase of resilience support through the future farming resilience fund, which this year is providing a £1 million project to provide support to farmers and land managers in England to help them prepare for the agricultural transition. I say to my noble friend Lady McIntosh that, yes, the financial support includes business support and advice. The project covers a range of business and well-being support approaches and measures across different sectors and regions to improve resilience and mental health. Evidence coming from this project will help inform the design of a national scheme, which is currently in development for a launch in early 2022.

On rural housing, I think your Lordships know that I facilitated a rural housing scheme at Kimble many years ago, and it is an issue on which I place great personal importance. The Government recognise that improving the availability of affordable housing in rural areas is essential to sustain thriving rural communities and to support the rural economy. My aspiration of multigenerational villages is very strong. Between April 2010 and March 2019, over 165,000 affordable homes were provided in rural local authority areas in England. Additionally, local authorities can already take advantage of rural exception sites to ensure that affordable housing can be provided to meet local needs, including for agricultural workers. The revised National Planning Policy Framework also supports farmers, with new policies to support the building of homes in isolated locations where this supports farm succession. Permitted development rights allow for the change of use of an agricultural building to a house. In 2018, the regulations were amended to allow up to 865 square metres of floor space to be converted, and up to five dwellings, an increase from the previous three.

I am very concerned for farmers’ and farm workers’ health and safety. The Health and Safety Executive is working closely with a wide range of stakeholders, including the NFU, to promote key messages that will prevent death, injury and ill health. This is an issue that the deputy president of the NFU, Stuart Roberts, and I, have spoken about at almost every meeting we have had. The HSE is working with farm safety partnerships of England, Wales and Scotland to help them drive forward the improvements needed in the farming industry.

I have tried to pick up the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Whitchurch, put into her amendment. If there are any areas that she would like to discuss further in terms of what we are doing and the importance of this work, I will be available to her whenever she wishes. I hope that I have demonstrated that in every sphere important work is already in hand. We need the skilled workforce and the right conditions for people to come and work in the countryside, now and in the future. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness feels able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this short but very interesting debate. I agree with my noble friend Lord Rooker that we have got a long way to go in getting the policy on seasonal workers right, despite what the Minister has said. We need a huge extension of SAWS. Every time I have talked to the Minister, he has said things along the lines of the Pick For Britain scheme being a success. There are very mixed stories coming out about that scheme, which was slightly predicated on using furloughed British staff to carry out that work in the fields, and that is obviously not a long-term solution. I hope that before we get too complacent about that, the Government have a proper review of the Pick For Britain scheme. To my mind, it was meant to be a short-term initiative. If it is to be a longer-term scheme, we need to look at how successful it has really been.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. She is right, and although I do not know if “land armies” is quite the right phrase, I know exactly what she means. We need to bring it all together into some sort of workforce plan with a holistic approach to delivering on all of this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and other noble Lords, raised the issue of training; she is quite right to say that this is not just about the rather old-fashioned courses that we used to have at FE colleges and so on. We can do far more now in terms of online training, flexible training and training for life, because it is not just about going on a course for a year. It is something that should become absolutely integrated into our workforce activities.

I was pleased to hear from the Minister about some of the training and apprenticeship initiatives taking place. As they go on, it would be good to have an update on them. I was also pleased to hear from the Minister about the health and mental health pilots taking place.

To my mind, there is a lot going on. I shall make a point that I do not think anybody picked up on, but I made it originally and will make it again. It is that this is not just about training. It is about pay and rewards, as well as having a career structure. The proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Curry, for nationally recognised qualifications and standards could be the basis of some new pay structure or pay award scheme. I hope that will be included in the considerations.

I hesitate. I was in two minds about whether we should vote on this. I return to my earlier point: I am anxious that, while lots of initiatives are taking place, they are not being brought together and it is all being done slightly piecemeal. Going back to the point made by the noble Baroness, there needs to be a more coherent workforce plan. I think, on balance, I will give the Government the benefit of the doubt on this at this point in the evening, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 70 withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 10:00 pm, 17th September 2020

My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 71. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division should make this clear in debate.