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Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2008

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I thank the Minister for giving up his time to respond to this short debate on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Although it is a little late, I welcome him to his new post and wish him well in what I think everybody would agree is one of the most challenging posts in Government.

I asked for this debate because I represent a constituency where fruit farming is the dominant type of agriculture. Kent is a county whose reputation as the garden of England is defined by its fruit farms, and I made my maiden speech on the subject when I entered the House in 2001. Since that time, I have served as secretary of the all-party group on the fruit industry, so this debate is taking place on behalf of the wider fruit sector as well as my own constituents.

However, it goes a great deal further than Kentish fruit farms. Since this debate was announced, I have been approached by many colleagues representing constituencies where other horticultural crops are grown. My concerns today are shared by, among many others, my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who support this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who reports similar concerns among his constituents who grow salad, legume and asparagus.

Given the timelines involved in the proposal to end SAWS in 2010, this is an opportune moment to raise concerns, as the Minister has the opportunity to take action now to prevent a disaster a year or 18 months hence. He should be in no doubt that it is a serious and genuine problem and not just the standard Westminster Hall whinge. I know of three growers in my constituency who have had to let crops rot in the ground as a result of labour shortages, and the problems caused by the abolition of SAWS were the dominant topic of conversation at the national fruit show three weeks ago.

The National Farmers Union’s seasonal labour survey for 2008 showed that a staggering 61 per cent. of respondents claimed to have lost income as a result of labour shortages, of which 58 per cent. was directly due to crops that could not be harvested. In effect, the crops were simply left to rot in the ground. A further 30 per cent. of losses were due to crops that, because of labour shortages, were harvested so late as to be unsaleable by the time they reached the market. The best estimate for total losses this year is £8 million, but that figure is expected to rise dramatically in 2009, and the figures are almost bound to be a serious underestimate, as less successful growers tend not to respond to the survey in the first place and growers more generally are notoriously unwilling to admit to failing to harvest crops.

Before examining the issues, I hope that we can agree on three specific principles. First, fruit farming, like horticulture more generally, is an activity that we all ought to support. All growers are vital small to medium-sized businesses that feed other parts of the local economy on the farms where they are situated, such as packing and transportation. When we last debated this issue 18 months or two years ago, fruit farming accounted for 12 per cent. of agriculture in this country, or 19 per cent. if the effect of subsidies is disaggregated. The industry produces high-quality produce close to the marketplace and, crucially, is completely unsubsidised. The Government’s healthy eating strategies, such as five a day, require UK growers to produce the fruit and vegetables necessary to make them work. In areas of top fruit farming, yielding fruit such as apples and pears, the trees also define the landscape. It is precisely because of fruit farming that Kent is known as the garden of England. Horticulture is an unqualified good thing.

The second principle is that, through successive Governments, SAWS has been a fantastic success for more than 40 years. SAWS is well managed by the operating companies and licensed by the Home Office, and all participating farms are carefully monitored. All participants in the scheme are genuine students, the money that they earn is taken home and invested in economies less developed than ours and, crucially, the abscondence rate is tiny. Many who come here as SAWS students go on to have successful agricultural careers in their own home countries; indeed, at the time of our last SAWS debate two years ago, the Polish Minister of Agriculture was Thomas Kowalski, who is an ex-SAWS student. In short, it is a fantastically successful scheme that should be nurtured and encouraged, not closed down.

The third and final principle, which is crucial, is that this is not an immigration and asylum issue. Participants are not looking to earn the right to stay here or to disappear into the black economy. It is a seasonal labour programme in which students come here on a work visa to gain specific agricultural experience relevant to their studies, earn some money and then go home. It makes no contribution to the more general immigration and asylum debate.

(North-East Cambridgeshire) I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that SAWS is a well-tried and tested system in which seasonal workers do not place pressure on the housing market or impinge on the benefits or schooling systems? As he rightly says, it is not to be confused with migration and immigration issues.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank him for that intervention. That is exactly the issue. SAWS workers come to do a specific task for a specific time, benefit hugely from the experience and then go home.

So what is the problem? At its peak in 2004, 25,000 students visited the UK through SAWS to work on our farms, earn money to take home and learn about our language and culture, as my hon. Friend said. The Government’s investigation into the matter, the Curry report, recommended that the number of places on the scheme should be increased to 50,000, or double that peak. However, despite that, the Government have committed to abolishing SAWS by 2010, in the hope that the shortfall will be filled by EU workers, particularly those from A8 accession countries.

The problem with that is fourfold. First, as I understand it, all restrictions on A8 accession countries are due to be lifted by 2011. Britain—I shall be careful how I say this—is not necessarily the most attractive European destination for unfettered migrant labour due to its climate, geographical isolation and associated higher travel costs. Worker registration scheme figures since 2006 support that, showing a downward trend in the number of A8 nationals coming to work in the UK in general and in UK horticulture in particular.

Secondly, there is a growing body of evidence that A8 workers are much more reluctant than SAWS students to work in horticulture. That is probably not a great surprise. They tend to filter away to less physically taxing jobs in the hospitality industry.

Thirdly—I would be the first to admit that this falls outside the Minister’s remit, but it is part of the larger problem—the domestic work force is reluctant to work in horticulture. The problem is closely related to the structure of the benefits system, which discourages the unemployed from taking temporary, seasonal work.

Finally, the Home Office has implemented year-on-year reductions in the number of seasonal agricultural workers in the years preceding the abolition of the scheme in 2010. In short, all the evidence suggests that the idea of replacing SAWS with A8 accession country labour will lead to a serious shortage in the work force, which will cause crops to rot, as we have started to see this year, and growers and horticulturalists to leave the sector. That cannot be a good thing in an economic downturn.

The solution is relatively simple and is fourfold. First, horticulture desperately needs an increase in the size of the remaining SAWS quota to manage the downturn in migrant numbers from the A8 accession countries. That would bring much-needed business confidence to the archetypically labour-intensive sectors of horticulture, such as soft fruit, top fruit and salad vegetables, and would be an easy win for the Government. Estimates from the NFU suggest that the recommended quota should be 21,250 for 2009 and at least 25,000 for 2010, or back to 2004 levels. If the Government really wanted to make their name with the industry, they could also lengthen the amount of time a seasonal worker can stay from six to nine months.

The second and longer-term solution is that horticulture desperately needs a new points-based system, or PBS, that is compatible with SAWS, and which embodies all the pre-2007 elements of SAWS. It would be perfectly reasonable to include new criteria that respond to broader societal concerns about the wider immigration and asylum debate, although, as I said earlier, this is strictly not an immigration and asylum issue. Such a scheme could easily include checks on arrival and departure for participating students; responsibility for ensuring departure being devolved to the SAWS operators, with return agreements in place with source countries; a strong educational and cultural bias, so that participants improve their English language skills and develop an understanding of British culture; and an appropriate inspection regime, including, if necessary, standards of accommodation and other employment conditions.

I know from my own experience—every year that I have been an MP, I have visited fruit farms over the summer, where many SAWS students are employed—that many growers do all of those things already. They have a programme of cultural visits, English language lessons in the evening, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, the industry should welcome an increase in standards across the board.

The third solution, and this falls outside the Minister’s remit, is to channel more inactive British citizens into horticulture. The Government have recognised this problem with the 2007 Freud report, “Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work”. I absolutely support the central tenets of that report, which include: implementing well-designed unemployment benefit systems and active labour market policies; making non-employment benefits more work-orientated, and adjusting taxes and other transfer payments to make work pay.

The Spanish example of a fixed, discontinuous contract, which allows a worker to have a contract with a company but only to be paid when work is available, is also worth examining. Such a system would do much to encourage the unemployed, those claiming jobseeker’s allowance and students to work in horticulture, and it would be an important element of any future solution to the problems that horticulture faces.

Finally, if I am being honest there are a number of solutions that horticulture itself needs to adopt. It needs to ensure that both horticulture in particular and agriculture more generally are attractive career options for younger people. Initiatives such as the Grow web portal, which is due for launch in November 2008, and the introduction of a land-based agriculture diploma are all hugely positive developments. However, the industry needs to do more, alongside the changes that I have requested of the Government, to alter perceptions of horticulture.

I am listening extremely carefully to the proposals for solving this problem that my hon. Friend is putting forward. As I understand it, an EU directive is behind this change to SAWS; it says that we cannot bring in workers from outside the EU if there are EU workers available to do the work. However, this is not just a problem for the UK. As I understand it, France, Spain, Germany and Italy all have similar problems. They seem to be getting round them by allowing quotas of non-EU people to come into their country to do this very important agricultural work. Is that idea worth consideration?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; such a quota would be a crucial plank of any new post-2010 agreement that would be put in place as a replacement for SAWS. It is very difficult to get an exact handle on all of these issues, but I am told that the problem is not so bad in countries such as Spain, because they are naturally a more attractive destination to students than the UK sometimes is, because of the greater travel costs to the UK and the climate here.

Absolutely. [Laughter.]

In conclusion, I hope that we can all agree that we should support horticulture in general and fruit farming in particular. The availability of labour is a key component—in some ways, it is the key component—in the industry’s success and future viability. Horticulture has been fantastically well served by SAWS under Governments of all colours for many years, but the scheme in its current form is due to end in 2010. All the early evidence suggests that labour from the A8 countries will not cover that shortfall.

What I need to impress on the Minister today is that horticulture desperately needs some breathing time. That could be achieved by extending the life of SAWS, as it is currently constituted, and increasing the number of people allowed into the country under the scheme. That would buy the time necessary to agree a new replacement scheme, containing precisely the elements suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, and whatever changes are necessary to existing regulations here in the UK to encourage more British citizens into horticulture.

The point of this debate—apart from welcoming the new Minister to his post, of course—was, first, to alert the Minister to the problem and, secondly, to highlight in general terms, and I am the first to admit that I am talking only in general terms, a number of possible solutions that he can, hopefully, work through with the NFU, SAWS operators and the wider industry. The clock is ticking to 2010, but there is still time to find a solution.

It is again a pleasure, Mr. Cook, to serve under you today.

I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) for his kind words. He said that my post was one of the trickiest jobs in Government and I agree. [Laughter.]

I also want to say that the hon. Gentleman’s contribution has highlighted exactly what the value of these short debates is. He said that his objective was to alert the Government to this problem and to put forward some solutions. I congratulate him, because he has done both those things. Having the detailed knowledge of a Member of Parliament who has a constituency involved in this sector is a godsend to a new Minister, alongside, of course, the information that the civil service professionally brings to my attention.

So I sincerely thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments today and I would like to suggest that the way forward, if he is amenable, is that we have a meeting, either with or without the NFU, which I want to meet in any event to discuss what the future of SAWS should be, because I think that the public would not understand what was happening if they saw that fruit and crops were not being picked and they would want the Government to provide a solution, within the remit of our wider policy.

First, I would just like to set out where we are on SAWS; I cannot answer all of the hon. Gentleman’s questions today, as I will explain. I have some personal knowledge of seasonal agricultural working in my part of the world, not in fruit picking but in haymaking, where the local children—usually boys, but sometimes boys and girls—would be hired by the farmers to get their hay in. Our local rural economy was absolutely dependent on that practice. I am sure that others, later in life, have gone to perhaps more attractive climates to pick fruit; I think that it was grapes in the case of the hon. Gentleman. So, as I say, I have some personal understanding of this sector, but of course nothing like his experience. I understand that SAWS—the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—was established in the 1940s as both an agricultural scheme and a youth-orientated scheme, to promote cultural exchange as well as to provide farmers with seasonal labour.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, until recently SAWS participants were required to be full-time students and they were mainly drawn from eastern European countries and states from the former Soviet Union. The big change in January 2004 saw the scheme being administered by nine operators, who work under contract with what is now the UK Border Agency, to recruit participants and match them to farm placements. The scheme seems to be a labour exchange, really, which does its job.

The scheme works on a strict quota basis with participating farmers and growers allowed to employ a fixed number of overseas workers though the scheme each year. I think that there is some confusion among lay people, who do not have the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the scheme, that the quota is a specific mix and match for the operators. Of course, there are people who can come in to this country outside of the scheme. So, there is some confusion. I hate to say that the press cannot cope with complicated issues. However, let me just put that comment about the scheme on the record.

The changes to the scheme started with the accession of the eight eastern European countries, plus Malta and Cyprus, to the EU in 2004. That led to the 2005 SAWS quota being reduced from 25,000—the figure that the hon. Gentleman wants to see reinstated—to 16,250, in order to reflect the new pool of labour that was available because of the A8 countries. Since 2007, of course, that figure has just covered Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) referred to.

While I am on this subject, I would just like to respond to the point that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire made about the EU directive in this area. I am advised that the relevant provision is article 14 of the accession treaty, which requires the UK “to give preference” to accession workers over non-EU workers; “to give preference” is the appropriate phrase, I am advised.

Like my hon. Friend I welcome the Minister to this rather tricky post that he has inherited. I thank him for his reply, but the issue is not that we have plenty of Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian workers. There are more in my constituency, probably, than anywhere in the country—working mainly in factories. We cannot get the same workers who are building a life for themselves in our communities to work on the land, particularly where the work is not just picking fruit but also vegetable crops such as asparagus and leeks, and others that go almost straight from the farm to the table, through the supermarkets. They are not interested in that seasonal work, particularly if more permanent employment is available. There is a shortfall, which is what my hon. Friend is trying to deal with.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The world is getting more urbanised, if I may use that phrase. Highly intensive labour requirements in the rural agricultural sector mean that we do not have the pool of labour that we had in previous years and generations, and that is why it is incumbent on the Government to answer the question that is being raised, and square the circle. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that I understand that point.

To carry on with my explanation of the current situation, the changes that I have referred to—the A8 changes and the A2 changes, referring to Bulgaria and Romania—were made to reflect the enlarged EU labour pool and the fact that many of the countries from which seasonal migrant labour has traditionally been sourced have now joined the EU. As has been acknowledged, employers in the horticultural sector have benefited from the decision to open the labour market to the A8 countries. Not every EU country did that. There are restrictions, for seven years, I think, relating to European Union entry, that countries can adopt. However, now we are able freely to recruit from the A8 countries, with the consequence that those nationals no longer need to be included in the SAWS quota. That is exposing the problem that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent brought to our attention.

As of 1 January 2007, to complicate matters further, Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the EU, allowing their nationals to move and reside freely in any member state. Romanian and Bulgarian nationals are subject to restricted access to the UK labour market while we continue to monitor the impact that the expanded EU is having.

In light of our obligations under European Union law, following a transitional period of one year, from 1 January 2008, the SAWS was restricted to nationals of Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the requirement to be in full-time education was lifted, to open up the pool of available labour. That was of course a break with a tradition going back to the 1940s. I have referred to the principle of Community preference, which means that we cannot place restrictions on European citizens with free rights of movement to work, while at the same time continuing to admit workers of other nationalities who are subject to immigration control to the UK to do the same work. Nor would it be sensible for us to do so.

What are we going to do? That is where the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent has put forward some sensible points. I concur with him on his point about what he described as inactive British citizens. The welfare-to-work strategies must identify the relevant shortages. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s positive comments about the attraction of the sector to people. Work is being done on that, and more is needed. The hon. Gentleman raised two specific questions: the quota and the issue of six months to nine months for length of stay. We need to include those in our deliberations.

Wider immigration policy is of course relevant. The hon. Members for North-East Cambridgeshire and for Faversham and Mid-Kent have made points about differences in the matter of seasonal temporary workers. Ensuring that we can count people in and out is of course a central and powerful part, with cross-party support, of our reforms to the immigration system to give the public confidence and inform the authorities. I hope to be able to report to Parliament significant success in that area. Of course, however, I have already learned, if I did not know before, that there are many sectors and examples in which special cases are made. One must consider the overall situation. That is why we have the expert advice of the migration advisory committee, which is ably chaired by Professor Metcalf of the London School of Economics.

The committee exists to provide independent, transparent and evidence-based advice to the Government on where labour market shortages exist, and where they can be filled by migration. I am advised that the NFU has submitted its evidence to the committee, and that is important. The MAC has published its recommended shortage occupation lists for the UK and, within that, for Scotland, for use in tier 2 of the points-based system. That was published on 9 September. I recognise that the point that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent is making was not included in that, so I am glad to say that we have now asked the migration advisory committee to turn its attention to the restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers’ access to the labour market, and the question of what impact the possible relaxation of the restrictions could have on the labour market. I am told that I am required to notify the European Commission about the issue by the end of the year. We shall consider the MAC’s recommendations across Government in that light. Of course, it is at that point, to avoid what the hon. Gentleman described, I think, as a potential disaster, that we need to take decisions and adopt policies and strategies to anticipate future problems.

The hon. Gentleman began his remarks by saying that they would not be a standard Westminster Hall whinge. I have never taken any Westminster Hall debate as a standard whinge, but he is raising a matter that is very important to the sector, and to his constituents and many other hon. Members’ constituencies. Changes and reforms are being made in immigration policy, based around the points-based system and the need to provide training, skilling and programmes to allow British citizens to fill skill shortages; nevertheless those policies need to recognise, as they do, that when shortages arise we can accommodate them where necessary through migration. That is why the advisory committee is so important and, if I may say so, why the constituency experience of Members of Parliament is important.

I sense that the Minister is coming to the end of his remarks, and just before he does I want to thank him, for myself and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire, for his constructive and open-minded approach. We should very much like to take him up on his offer of a meeting. It sounds as if that would be most appropriate in the early part of next year, by which stage the report will have gone to the EU. I thank him once again for his constructive and helpful approach to the debate.

That is very gracious of the hon. Gentleman. I do not, of course, know his part of the world as well as he does, but I worked there, and as a northerner discovering Kent I was overwhelmed by what a beautiful area it is. The industrial sector to which he has referred is hugely important to us. The issue that he has raised has wide implications, such as the debate about food miles and carbon footprints, which I engaged with in my previous job, with the help of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith); we cannot square those circles without a vibrant, prosperous British agriculture sector. That means that we must have labour. There is no getting away from that. Technology can of course make changes, but I have yet to see a machine that can pick strawberries as well as a group of students.

Sitting suspended.