Soft Fruit Industry (Migrant Workers)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 14th June 2018.

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Photo of David Torrance David Torrance Scottish National Party

3. To ask the Scottish Government how important European migrant workers are to the soft fruit industry in Scotland. (S5O-02229)

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The soft fruit sector is hugely important to the Scottish economy. It is one of Scotland’s food and drink success stories, having grown its output from £49 million in 2006 to £115 million in 2016.

In 2017, the Scottish Government commissioned research in order to appreciate better the scale of seasonal migrant workers to the Scottish agriculture sector as a whole. It found that, of the almost 10,000-strong work force, the vast majority of whom were in the soft fruit sector, 95 per cent were European migrants. Clearly, European migrant workers are key to the industry’s success continuing in the future.

Photo of David Torrance David Torrance Scottish National Party

In 2017, the farms that are involved in Angus Growers Ltd—which is a collective of farms in Angus, Perthshire and Fife—lost £625,000, and 85 tonnes of fruit was unpicked or downgraded due to labour shortages. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the United Kingdom Tory Government’s shamefully unprepared and shambolic Brexit strategy is damaging Scotland’s economy and growth by restricting our £115 million fruit-picking industry?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Anyone must agree with that, if they look at the facts. David Torrance has simply stated facts that have been not only well reported, but have been repeated time and again. Graeme Dey, the MSP for Angus South, and I have met Angus Growers, and in April I visited two of the farms to speak to employees.

It is clear that the loss of migrant workers is not only a threat for the future but is damaging the soft fruit economy right now. The right approach is for the Scottish Parliament to have the powers to deal with the matter ourselves. A tailored migration system for Scotland is needed. That would require devolved powers within a UK framework that would allow the Scottish Government, accountable to the Scottish Parliament, to set visa rules and criteria in order to meet Scotland’s most acute needs. Michael Gove has actually said that powers in the area should be passed to Scotland—so, Presiding Officer, I say let’s get on with it.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I agree with the cabinet secretary that the issue is having a significant impact on the economy of Scotland. In North East Fife, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of workers picking berries, and picking broccoli for Morrisons and other supermarkets.

Has the minister made an assessment of the financial impact of the shortage of workers so far this year? If so, has he relayed that to the UK Government? It needs to understand the financial and economic impacts that have already happened because of the exchange rate and Brexit.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Willie Rennie has made a fair point that illustrates that there is, apart from one party, common ground in the chamber on the subject. The vast majority of people in the chamber, the vast majority of people watching, and the vast majority in Scotland believe that it is not right to treat people that way. They are people who come to this country to give of their time and work extremely hard, often starting, I understand, at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning in order to deliver success in the sectors that Willie Rennie mentioned.

Willie Rennie asked about surveys; we have some information. For example, nearly 60 per cent of farmers believe that it will be impossible to maintain existing business structures without access to migrant labour. Furthermore, nearly half believe that they will definitely have to downgrade their work. As David Torrance said, the situation had a damaging effect last year in terms of there being a reduced harvest, reduced output, reduced profits and reduced gross value added to the economy.

I hope that Michael Gove will implement the pledge that he made when he spoke at the National Farmers Union’s conference in the early part of this year, which was that there would be a scheme that would enable what we have discussed. Incidentally, he has already broken his pledge: he promised such a scheme by March, but March is long gone and no action has been taken.

However, that action itself would not be enough. We need a Scottish-tailored and Scottish-designed policy, produced by the Scottish Government, through the Scottish Parliament, in order that we can end the iniquity, the unfairness, the seediness and the unpleasantness that shames Scotland and the UK, and which is already damaging our rural economy.