Examination of Witness

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 14th February 2019.

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James Porter:

If you take soft fruit, wages in soft fruit have gone up from £3.60 in 1999 to £8.21 currently, and they are due to go up again in April to around £8.51, I think. Our top 10% to 15% of pickers will earn £10 to £12 an hour. They will get holiday pay and they will get overtime after 48 hours—of time and a half, not time and a quarter—because we have the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board. They pay national insurance. They pay tax. To me, they are a big asset to the country as a whole. We struggle a little bit with this idea that they are not contributing. They are contributing, although they might well be below the £30,000 limit.

Wages have gone up significantly in the last 15 to 20 years. If I look back to that initial period, wages were 22% of turnover, but they are currently 48%. The reason for that is that we are not getting paid a penny more for a punnet of strawberries than we were 25 years ago. It was £2 a punnet when I came home from university in 1993, and it is still £2 a punnet, so we are caught between a rock and a hard place. I really do not begrudge these people—it is about 50:50 men and women—their coin, because they have earned it; I used to pick strawberries and it is hard work. But it is very hard for us to keep innovating and developing our industry and increasing our yields. We cannot go on like that forever. It is very difficult.

We spend a lot of money on innovation. We are not shy of spending money on polytunnels. Most of our crops are now on tabletops, which is a significant capital investment. We are now starting to put in gutters, which will recycle and reuse water. We have spent a lot of money on trying to reduce pesticides. We use a lot of natural predators and natural biopesticides. We are doing a lot of things to improve, invest and innovate. Yields have gone up from 10 tonnes a hectare on average to around 22 tonnes a hectare now. It is difficult. I do not think it is fair to call us low productivity or low investment, or to say that we are just sitting on our hands and not bothering to try to improve the situation or make things more efficient. We really are.