Annual review: Impact on the agricultural sector

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 18th June 2020.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must commission an annual report from the Migration Advisory Committee on the impact of the provisions of this Act on the number of seasonal agricultural workers in the UK.

(2) In undertaking the evaluation, the Secretary of State must consult—

(a) the relevant Scottish Ministers;

(b) the relevant Welsh Ministers; and

(c) the relevant Northern Ireland Ministers.

(3) The report must be laid before each House of Parliament as soon as possible after it has been completed.

(4) A Minister of the Crown must, not later than three months after the report has been laid before Parliament, make a motion in the House of Commons in relation to the report.’—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Good morning, Sir Edward. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again. New clause 24 is in very much the same spirit as new clause 21, which would require the Government to commission a report on the Bill’s impact on the health and social care sectors. New clause 24 would require them to take the same approach to the agriculture sector and food security.

Significant numbers of EEA nationals are employed on a permanent and seasonal basis, making them an instrumental consideration for the agriculture sector. As things stand, it would not function without them. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on certain sectors that we have often taken for granted but are absolutely essential. Food security has been a focus for people as never before. It is another area that brings recognition that food production is essential to life. Its workers have been classed as key workers for the purposes of the pandemic, yet so many of those who have worked incredibly hard to keep fruit and veg, in particular, on our tables throughout the pandemic are paid less than £25,600.

The Government’s February policy statement on their future points-based immigration system simply states:

“We will end free movement and not implement a route for lower-skilled workers.”

Members who served on the Committee that considered the Bill presented during the 2017-19 Parliament may remember that James Porter of the National Farmers Union of Scotland gave evidence. I spoke to Mr Porter about the Bill and about the issue of “low-skilled” workers. He was keen to stress that, although some of his workers may not have qualifications or letters after their names, being an agricultural worker and picker of soft fruits and vegetables is their profession. It requires skill and they take great pride in it.

Mr Porter said that most of his seasonal workers have been coming back to his farm for 10 or 15 years. He went on to explain that the exceptional circumstances of this year meant that attempts to redirect people traditionally from different lines of work and professions into agriculture from the local labour pool had brought out the likes of lawyers, electricians and teachers to pick fruit on his farm. That was welcome, but he made the point that although they were educated and highly skilled in their own field, they were not skilled fruit pickers. They took longer and their yield was not comparable with that of people who specialise in that line of work.

The Government’s February policy paper goes on to say:

“UK businesses will need to adapt and adjust to the end of free movement, and we will not seek to recreate the outcomes from free movement within the points-based system. As such, it is important that employers move away from a reliance on the UK’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity, and wider investment in technology and automation.”

I sought to make a point about this matter on Tuesday, during the discussion on the social care new clause. I completely accept the Minister’s point that social care and agriculture are very different sectors. He will look to the unemployment figures and say that we will fill labour shortages from the domestic workforce, but I gave the example of how attempts to channel those who are out of work into other sectors over the course of the pandemic had not exactly been an easy or straightforward process.

I cited the Pick for Britain scheme as an example. The Minister may have more up-to-date figures but, after overcoming some initial teething problems with the website, one of the organisations managing the scheme, Concordia, reported that it had 35,000 applications after the initial appeal for domestic workers. However, only 30% of applicants had farming experience—as was probably predictable—and only 16% of people opted to interview after their initial application, with even fewer actually making it on to a farm.

Some of the pressures have been alleviated thanks to specially chartered flights from EU countries such as Romania, which have provided us with the skilled workers we need, but they have been a warning of what is to come. When we have problems in the sector, we will say with absolute certainty that the writing was on the wall.

The seasonal agriculture workers pilot scheme needs to be much improved if it is to sustain the levels of migrant work needed after the end of the transition period. The pilot allows for 10,000 visas, when actually 70,000 would be much closer to the agreed number of people required. The cost of permits is too high and farms simply do not have the administrative capacity needed to process the bureaucracy that accompanies each individual application.

FLEX, the Focus on Labour Exploitation group, has also repeatedly raised concerns about the potential for worker exploitation in the scheme, citing the issue of tied visas, where the worker is tied to one specific employer and prohibited from changing employer while in the UK under that visa. Debt bondage, where the worker’s wages go towards paying off costs of entering the scheme, such as visa charges and flight costs, alongside recruitment fees paid to labour brokers, is another worrying trend that will need to be addressed in any future scheme.

Right across the sector there are problems. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took evidence on this in May, with Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, telling the Committee that the crisis had shown how vital the food industry was. He said:

“If you can’t feed a country, you don’t have a country. That has been borne out in this crisis in massive order.”

He went on to explicitly say:

“We don’t think the current Immigration Bill addresses the sort of country we want to be. I think it is surprising that, given the lessons of the last eight or nine weeks, the Immigration Bill is back in parliament unchanged, given what we have learned about the people working in food and drink, in distribution centres and the care sectors.”

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

The hon. Lady is right to identify some of the exploitation that can occur. Does she agree that the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 addressed many of those problems and that the situation is much better than it was because of legislation passed by the Conservative-led Government?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I am grateful for that intervention and I welcome the point made by the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby—

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Further to my hon. Friend’s correction, James Porter was keen to stress that that has been a helpful intervention to improve standards for workers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that there is still much more to do to ensure that we are looking after these workers.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

May I correct the record? It was because of legislation passed by the last Labour Government, which I do not recall that we opposed.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

That is one of the best interventions I have taken during the course of this Committee, and it was a welcome addition.

The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers has estimated that in the UK, 56% of dairy farmers have employed workers from the EU; 60%––around 22,800 EU migrants––make up the workforce in poultry farming. According to the NFU, the UK’s horticulture sector is completely reliant upon seasonal migrant workers to collect crop yields: 99% of all harvesters in the UK come from Europe. All these working relationships have been forged over time due largely to the flexibility granted by freedom of movement.

The British Poultry Council has warned that the new immigration plans are likely to have a crippling impact on UK food businesses. A report of the kind outlined in new clause 24 is therefore necessary to safeguard the UK’s agriculture industry, during a time of much upheaval. As both the National Farmers Union and National Farmers Union of Scotland have stressed, fruit and vegetable picking requires a high level of manual skills, and farms can only operate efficiently when they recruit workers with this skillset.

This is the one sector where we can say that we have just been through a trial for the ending of free movement, brought about by lockdown. Migrant labour dried up due to lockdown and the Government tried to recruit from the domestic labour force. Nowhere near the required numbers joined up, fruit and veg started to rot in the fields and we were forced to very quickly get migrant labour from Europe back in on chartered flights. It is vital that the Government learn from our experiences during the crisis and develop a proactive and pragmatic agricultural policy for implementation after the transition period. New clause 24 would give us the information required to do this.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward. I can be relatively brief because the shadow Minister has spoken to the National Farmers Union of Scotland and represented its interests pretty well. There is real concern about shortages in the labour market for agriculture, particularly in relation to seasonal workers. Research on seasonal migrant labour from 2018 showed that in Scotland alone the number of seasonal agricultural workers required in any year is not far short of 10,000.

More recently, the NFUS and the UK farming unions have given evidence to the UK Government, demonstrating that for the whole UK around 70,000 seasonal staff are required in the horticultural sector and 13,000 seasonal staff are required in the poultry sector every year. That is obviously many times more than the number of places in the current pilot.

Challenges in recruiting seasonal workers have already been seen in recent years. In 2018, the NFUS conducted a survey of its horticultural membership in which every single respondent reported being “concerned” or “very concerned” about the impact worker shortages would have on their businesses in 2018 and beyond. Almost 60% of respondents said they were “likely” or “very likely” to downsize their business and the remaining 42% said they would have to cease current activity.

The NFUS was opposed to the end of free movement but, even while free movement was retained, farmers increasingly needed to look beyond the EU to fill such posts, with countries such as Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova already supplying a significant proportion of the workers required. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme pilot has been described as a step in the right direction, but it does not provide nearly enough permits if shortages such as those experienced in recent years are going to continue.

The NFUS is calling for a seasonal scheme that is open to both EU and non-EU workers, with capacity to provide farmers with access to returnee employers. It also calls for the scheme to be open to a wide number of labour providers and direct recruiters. Some concerns have been expressed about the expense and the somewhat laborious processes that are involved in taking advantage of the scheme.

The NFUS has also expressed concerns that the future immigration system proposed by the Government is not based on realistic expectations of the ability of the UK to fill the jobs currently carried out by migrant workers. It says that

“to maintain the productivity of the agricultural sector, immigration policy must allow recruitment on a seasonal basis for workers from both the EU and non-EU, at a non-restricted level.”

I echo what the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Halifax, said about the SAWS scheme and how we always have to be cautious about the need to carefully protect workers against exploitation. She was right to highlight concerns raised by Focus on Labour Exploitation during the passage of the Bill last year.

To come to the rescue of the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, the gangmasters legislation was very welcome, but so too was the introduction of the director of labour market enforcement in 2016, under the Conservative Government, which may have been what he was thinking about. Those are both welcome moves, but we have a long way to go to build on the creation of those posts in ensuring that migrant workers—and workers generally—are properly protected.

One criticism of the new clause is that it is not just on seasonal workers that we need to have a report; we need a broader report on the impact on access to labour in the agricultural industry. The concerns of organisations such as the NFUS go further than seasonal work, and include the cost of sponsorship under tier 2, which it has described as

“prohibitively expensive in terms of both financial and administrative burden.”

It is fair to say that the NFUS has welcomed some of the recent developments, for example the decrease to the salary threshold that has been introduced by the Government, but it asks how non-salaried roles will fit into the points-based system; how the revised shortage occupation list will generally take account of the range of occupations that exist in agriculture; whether the Government will consider targeted routes for remote and rural areas—unfortunately, from what the Minister said the other day, it sounds as if it will be disappointed in that regard—and how the expense and bureaucracy of the system can be improved. It simply calls for close engagement as we move towards the implementation of the new system.

The new clause is sensible and will contribute to our understanding of what is going on in a future debate about labour in the agricultural sector.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I welcome the general tone of the debate that we have had so far.

As the Migration Advisory Committee—or MAC—has already made clear in its report of September 2018, agriculture is an exceptional case, as we believe the labour market is totally distinct from the labour market for resident workers. For this reason, although the MAC recommended against a dedicated route for recruiting workers based on paying at or near the legal minimum—advice that this Government accept—it did consider that the position was different in respect of the UK’s world-leading agricultural sector.

Accordingly, on 6 March last year the Government announced the implementation of a nationwide pilot to enable non-EU migrant workers to undertake seasonal work on UK farms. The seasonal worker pilot admits temporary workers from outside the European Union to work in edible horticulture for up to six months. The pilot scheme ran last year on the basis of 2,500 places, and on 19 February, in line with the commitment made in our election manifesto, we increased the annual quota for the second year of the pilot from 2,500 places to 10,000 places.

To be clear, the pilot is not designed to meet the full needs of the farming industry. It is designed to test the effectiveness of our immigration system at supporting UK growers during peak production periods, while maintaining robust immigration control and ensuring that there are minimal impacts on local communities and public services. A thorough evaluation will be undertaken before a final decision is made on the future of the scheme. The evaluation of the pilot will also help to inform our thinking as we move towards our future immigration system.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the current situation in which the agricultural sector finds itself. We appreciate that this is a worrying time for farmers, as it is for many small businesses. I very much welcome the efforts the sector has made to increase the supply of workers from among the domestic workforce, and I pay tribute to those who have answered the call to create a modern-day land army. I was advised within the last few days that growers who advertised jobs on the Pick for Britain hub report that they have now recruited the number of workers they need for their farms.

We should ensure that migration is not an alternative to providing fair terms and conditions, particularly where reasonable requests are made. I point Opposition Members to a recent article in Prospect magazine and some of the reports we have had. While many farmers have been very accommodating and looked to bring local workers in, one or two have sadly not reacted with the type of changes that seem reasonable in the circumstances. We are clear that the migration system must not become an alternative to working with and employing local labour if it is possible to do so.

The pilot is still operating, despite everything. The scheme operators have sponsored nearly 3,000 people to come under the scheme already this year, though not all of them have yet been able to come to the UK due to travel restrictions relating to covid-19. I am pleased to advise the Committee that we recently reopened visa applications in Kiev and Minsk, from two of the prime source countries for workers under this scheme. Unsurprisingly, following that we are already seeing a significant increase in applications, which the Home Office is processing rapidly.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

Can the Minister give us a rough outline of when a review of the pilot scheme will take place and when any sort of decision can be expected on how it will look in the future?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We expect to undertake that evaluation later this year and then announce the results as part of confirming the final details of the future migration scheme. If the hon. Gentleman’s next question is about whether we will take into account the unique circumstances this year, the obvious answer is yes, given the restrictions on travel. We have found that the net is going wider in trying to recruit. Just creating migration opportunity does not automatically bring workers to the United Kingdom, as we have seen with free movement—for example, it used to be common for people from parts of western Europe to come here to do this work, but now it is not. Again, migration cannot be seen as an alternative to providing attractive terms and conditions that will encourage people to wish to do the work. Our intention is to make that announcement later this year and then confirm our intentions, in good time for next year’s season.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs already conducts quarterly seasonal labour in horticulture surveys, explicitly looking at the questions of supply and demand of seasonal labour in horticulture. I am therefore not persuaded that a further annual MAC report would significantly add to our knowledge on this matter, especially when the MAC will in future have more ability to work on matters of its own choosing, including an annual report on the migration system, in which it can choose to cover the areas suggested in the new clause. If we are giving the MAC the ability to choose what it sees as the priorities in its annual report, with debate in the House on that report, it seems strange to give it that freedom and then compel it to do a number of reports by primary legislation. With those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Halifax will feel able to withdraw her new clause.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I am grateful to the Minister for those assurances. We welcome the increased flexibility that the MAC will have. I wonder whether there will be an opportunity for Opposition parties and MPs to cast a particular spotlight on an area, so that MPs can feed into that process with the MAC.

It is in everyone’s interest that we continue to see the wide availability of fresh fruit and veg for families. I accept the point made by my friend the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East that we would like to see any assessment of this sector be broader than seasonal agricultural workers and take into account the requirements of the workforce right across the food sector.

Having said that, I do not intend to push the new clause to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.