South-west Agriculture and Fishing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:55 pm on 19th October 2016.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 4:55 pm, 19th October 2016

It is a pleasure, as ever, Mrs Moon, to see you in the Chair.

I congratulate Scott Mann on securing the debate. It will not surprise him to hear that I do not agree with him about the benefits of the vote on 23 June for British agriculture and fisheries. The food and farming sectors face very real threats from Brexit. I appreciate that there are opportunities too, but I am already worried about the extent to which people have seized on the idea of those opportunities, because to some extent they fly in the face of what we know to be the Government’s agenda. In particular, in the context of protecting the natural environment, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, is already looking at the impact of Brexit on the managed landscape and the natural environment. Yes there are certainly opportunities to improve how we do things, but I am less than optimistic that those opportunities will be seized.

It is also important to stop using the European Union as an excuse for some of the deficiencies in policy. For example, the allocation of quotas between the smaller and larger fleets is to a large extent in the hands of the UK Government—the decision can already be made by them without the need for agreement with our European partners.

In the two and a half minutes I have left, I will talk about labour and workforce issues, and what restrictions on freedom of movement would mean for the sector. It has been estimated that 90% of British fruit, vegetables and salad are harvested by 60,000 to 70,000 seasonal migrant workers, many of whom come from the accession countries of eastern Europe. The vast majority come from other EU countries, and we need to answer the question of what would happen to the labour supply if we placed restrictions on freedom of movement, and whether it is something that can be dealt with through seasonal visas.

There is a fear that ill-thought-through restrictions on freedom of movement will mean that crops go unharvested, hitting food supplies, food production and farmers’ incomes, eventually putting them out of business. As we have heard, food sovereignty—food security—is a real issue in this country. At the moment, we produce less than 60% of the food that we eat, and 40% of the fruit and vegetables that we consume come from the EU. Things that can be grown here ought to be grown here, but that needs a supply of labour as well.

Last week, in Parliament I attended an interesting event organised by the Food and Drink Federation. Food manufacturers were talking about the impact of Brexit on them. I must admit that I had not realised the extent to which they depend on a skilled workforce from other European countries. They said that 27% of their workforce are non-UK EU citizens. Of course, some of those are at the lower end of the scale, filling the jobs that people perhaps do not want, or perhaps people are not prepared to work for below the living wage. Those businesses estimate that they will need 130,000 new skilled workers by 2024 and they were not confident that the Government’s existing policies on apprenticeships and on encouraging people to study the relevant subjects at university would pay off. They are already having difficulty recruiting and, understandably, their employees are already worried.

We had a debate in the main Chamber today about what will happen to EU migrants who are currently working in this country and whether they will be allowed to remain. What restrictions on freedom of movement will mean for both low and high-skill jobs is a real issue. I hope the Minister is discussing that with her colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Home Office and the other Departments involved.