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Agriculture: Manpower

Volume 481: debated on Monday 27 October 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (1) what assessment his Department has made of the availability of agricultural and horticultural labour in the UK; and if he will make a statement; (227300)

(2) what assessment his Department has made of the effect on the fruit and vegetable crop on the availability of agricultural and horticultural labour.

When the new member states acceded to the EU in 2004, the Government decided to allow A8 nationals to take up work freely in the UK subject to registering with the Workers Registration Scheme. Information collected via the scheme records show that by June 2008, some 85,000 accession nationals had registered to take up work in the agricultural sector. Of these, around 6,400 were specifically registered to work as fruit pickers, and 12,900 as crop harvesters.

In addition, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) provides an assured annual quota of 16,250 workers from the A2 countries, and is an important source of seasonal labour for farmers and growers, particularly at periods of peak activity. Given the importance the industry attaches to SAWS, Government agreed not to phase out the scheme until 2010 in order to give the industry time to adapt to a labour market expanded by nationals from the new member states.

SAWS is administered by the UK Borders Agency. DEFRA Ministers continue to remain in regular contact with their colleagues at the Home Office about the operation of the scheme. In March of this year, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) met representatives of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and SAWS operators to listen to their concerns about the current level of quota and changes made to the scheme as a result of the accession to the EU of Romania and Bulgaria. This meeting concluded with a commitment to maintain a dialogue between Government and the industry on this matter, and this is ongoing.

In March 2007, the Government set up the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to provide independent, transparent and evidence-based advice on where labour market shortages exist which can sensibly be filled by migration. MAC underpins the new points-based system for migration to the UK by advising Government on which occupations should be designated as shortage occupations. Tier 3 of the PBS provides a potential route for low-skilled workers from outside the EU to take up work in the UK but is suspended for the foreseeable future, while restrictions remain in place for A2 nationals.

However, immigration is not the only tool available for tackling the problem of labour shortages. The industry also needs to be prepared to consider the scope for technological innovation, and to examine the conditions and prospects available for those working in agriculture. This will enable the industry to compete more effectively in the job market and to re-integrate the domestic labour force.

I am aware of the concerns expressed by some farmers and growers about seasonal labour shortages and the impact these are having on the cultivation and harvesting of fruit and vegetable crops, and we are in regular contact with the Home Office on this and other matters.