Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson)
It is delightful to start the day with you in the Chair, Mr Dobbin.
Agriculture is an important industry in my constituency, which is hardly surprising if we consider that Sittingbourne and Sheppey is situated in God’s own county of Kent. Agriculture will have an increasingly strategic importance nationally. Over the next couple of decades, food security will become a major issue as the world’s population increases and demand for food grows in those countries from which we currently import agricultural products. Britain will have to grow more of its own produce if it is to maintain a plentiful supply of affordable food. Britain’s farmers will become increasingly important to our national economy, and their success in feeding a growing population will depend not only on better use of a shrinking amount of available agricultural land but on having a well trained and willing work force to help harvest the crops.
Kent, which as everyone knows is the garden of England, is renowned for its orchards. Horticulture, which is defined as the cultivation of flowers, fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants, contributes some £3.1 billion to the UK’s GDP. The employment created by horticulture is crucial to many communities, particularly small communities in rural areas for whom other employment is simply not available. It is ironic, therefore, that farmers in recent years have found it so difficult to recruit local labour and have had to rely on foreign workers.
The vast majority of those workers come into the country on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, SAWS, which is quota based and enables farmers to recruit temporary overseas workers to carry out planting and the harvesting of crops, as well as farm processing and packing. SAWS is an effective scheme controlled by the UK Border Agency and managed by contracted operators. Workers are issued with a work card that gives them permission to work for one employer for a fixed period of up to six months. Those workers must be paid the minimum wage and be provided with accommodation by their employer. The scheme has provided a pool of labour for the horticulture industry for 60 years, and without those workers farmers simply would not be able to survive.
Before 2007 SAWS applied to students from outside the European economic area, but since 2008 the scheme has been restricted to Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, as part of the transitional controls on migration from those countries when they joined the European Union. Those restrictions will be lifted in 2013, and farmers fear that they will have insufficient labour to meet their seasonal demands. One of the reasons why farmers find it difficult to recruit home-grown local workers is the seasonal nature of employment in agriculture and horticulture. The season generally lasts from March to September, with the peak months of employment being April and May. Setting aside the perhaps understandable desire of domestic workers to prefer full-time employment, fewer and fewer local people seem willing to undertake what can sometimes be hard, physical work with early morning starts and long hours.
As a boy growing up in the Medway towns, I remember being taken down to the Sun pier in Chatham by my aunt and cousins to queue up for the lorry to take us for a day’s picking on one of the local farms. I was about nine or 10, but I put in a full day’s work picking fruit, peas or hops—it shows, I know. Those days are long gone, but it would be good to think that we might be able to encourage more young people to spend their summer holidays working in the fields.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on an extremely important topic. In my own county of Herefordshire, we have many visitors who are reliant on SAWS. Farmers advertise scrupulously for local, English labour when attempting to fill such jobs, but often without success. Has that also been his experience in Kent?
Very much so, and I will come on to possible ways to overcome that.
Some would argue that people on benefits should be forced to take the place of foreign workers and, on the face of it, that option is attractive. The problem is that forced labour is not productive labour. We can make people pick fruit, but we cannot make them pick it so as to ensure that it is packed in perfect condition. Bruised apples are no good to anyone, and certainly not to farmers and their customers, for whom quality is important.
Other countries, notably Spain, have schemes that allow those on benefits to retain their entitlement while undertaking seasonal work on a daily call basis. The so-called fixed discontinuous contract allows workers to have an indefinite contract with a farmer, while only being called to work if there is suitable work. On days without suitable employment, the worker may claim unemployment benefit, and a tally is kept of the days worked, not worked or taken off sick. That scheme not only provides farmers with access to seasonal workers, but offers those workers a route out of benefits, the opportunity for training and an increase in self-esteem. The Government should consider introducing a similar scheme here in Britain.
Another option, which could have more long-term benefits, is the voluntary employment of properly supervised prisoners to work on farms. Before I am misinterpreted, let me repeat those criteria: prisoners should be volunteers and they should be properly supervised. The Government have said that they want to see all prisoners working and being paid for that work, and such an arrangement would no doubt be a useful tool to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them for release back into society. Giving inmates a skill that could provide them with work opportunities when they leave jail could go a long way towards ensuring that they do not reoffend.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I hope he recognises that we are not talking about unskilled labour. The dexterity and speed with which some of those people can operate machinery and harvest shows great skill, and such skills would enable people to go on to employment later in their lives.
Absolutely right—and training prisoners to become agricultural workers might encourage them to work on the land when they leave prison, which would solve another problem. One of the problems with getting prisoners to work, however, is that unemployed people who are not in prison resent inmates being given jobs that might otherwise go to them. Encouraging prisoners to take jobs that other domestic workers have turned their backs on, such as those jobs in agriculture, would solve that particular problem.
I have spoken to the governor of one of my three local prisons and he was keen to trial such a scheme. Cynics may say that prisoners would not want to work on farms, but until relatively recently Standford Hill open prison on Sheppey, in my constituency, operated a farm that supplied produce to the prison estate. The workers on the farm were, in the main, inmates and they were bitterly disappointed when the previous Government decided to close the farm down.
Even if such schemes were successful, there would still be a need for more labour than the domestic labour force could or would supply. As I said earlier, the present SAWS arrangements finish in 2013, but the Government have not yet made it clear whether they intend to introduce a successor scheme. I urge Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to press the Home Office to deal with the problem as a matter of urgency, bearing in mind that we are already in 2012. Farmers in my constituency are keen to see a replacement for SAWS in place before the end of this year. They want any new scheme not only to recognise the continued need for a certain number of overseas workers, but to maximise the potential use of local labour.
The National Farmers Union has put together a proposal that includes the following criteria, which it believes are critical to the overall architecture of a new SAWS scheme. Any new scheme should be overseen by the Home Office, as SAWS is now, and be managed by licensed operators, again as now, with an annual quota decided by the Home Office and the Migration Advisory Committee. A new scheme should include a robust system for checking arrivals, departures and return to the home country. It should go back to the origins of the original scheme, as a youth work experience programme. It should require operators to continue to recruit from the European Union in preference to non-EU applicants. However, a new scheme should be available to university-level students of agriculture or agriculture-related subjects from any country, with return arrangements with the UK.
To be consistent with Government policy, the new scheme should be contained within tier 5 of the points-based temporary workers and youth mobility system. As such, it could meet the UK’s cultural and international objectives. It should have a specific set of standards that are subject to an accreditation scheme managed by SAWS operators. Permission to work and to remain in the UK should be via a work card or specific visa category, and restricted to the dates on the work card, with a maximum period of six months.
Under the previous SAWS programme, agriculture students were often set assignments to complete during their placement. That should be encouraged under a new scheme. A more robust educational element could include, for example, the provision of English language lessons and on-the-job training. Growers should be encouraged to provide cultural activities in the local area to enable the community and the workers to experience each other’s culture.
In addition, the Government should try to encourage British citizens to work in the agriculture industry. Changing perceptions and improving the career development and progression opportunities in the horticulture sector are an important part of achieving success. The Government should consider adapting the UK benefits system to allow those on benefits not to lose their entitlement while undertaking work on a daily call basis. I am convinced that that would encourage inactive citizens to take on seasonal work.
Understandably, the employment of prisoners and ex-prisoners is a touchy subject, and employers approach it with a certain amount of caution. I believe that an offer of financial support for employers to train and mentor prisoners and ex-prisoners might encourage more widespread take-up under the scheme. Consideration should be given to a summer programme carrying vocational and academic credits in addition to cash pay. Hopefully, that would attract more students to work in the industry.
I turn to two issues of concern to my local farmers that will have an impact on the future prospects of employment in the agriculture industry in my area. First, reforms to the common agricultural policy are being discussed, and farmers are worried about the way in which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seems to be trying to divert funds from pillar 1 direct payments to pillar 2 rural development funding. In particular, the greening component, which represents 30% of the value of direct payments, is conditional on additional environmental action on their land. That includes cultivating a minimum of three crops every year, retaining areas of permanent pasture, and ensuring that 7% of arable land is an environmental focus area.
British farmers believe that such a proposal would put them at a disadvantage because many of them have already adopted additional environmental measures on their farms through agri-environment schemes, and it would be difficult for them to set aside more land to comply with the greening proposal. Farmers believe that greening will reduce their overall competitiveness, making them more rather than less dependent on direct payments. I would welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement of those concerns, and an assurance that they are being addressed.
Finally, my local farmers are worried about the delay in abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, which they maintain restricts employers by demanding that they pay full wages for 16-year-olds, and which makes it difficult for agricultural workers to get a mortgage because they do not receive a salary. I would welcome an indication from the Minister of the proposed timetable for scrapping the board.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on his wisdom and prescience in calling for this debate today. I am sure you are aware, Mr Dobbin, that in fact Worcestershire is the garden of England, although the branding needs to catch up a bit. It has a fantastic horticultural industry. Not only are we known for pears—the county emblem includes a pear—but we grow apples, soft fruit, tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. You name it, it is grown in Worcestershire, and it is delicious. I invite you, Mr Dobbin, and other hon. Members to the Worcestershire food day that will be held in Westminster Hall on 27 June, which is one week today. I hope that hon. Members will mark their diaries.
Seasonal agricultural work has been raised with me by farmers in my constituency, and this is a good time for the country to be thinking about it. Despite today’s welcome news that employment has risen by 166,000 in the past three months, 2.61 million people in this country are still not working, and according to the International Labour Organisation’s measure, about 1 million of that 2.61 million are young people under the age of 24. Like my hon. Friend, when I was a student, I earned money by picking fruit during the summer holidays. It is hard work and the hours are long, but it is a good source of income for students. Of the 1 million young people who are not working, about 230,000 are in full-time education, but have signed on because they want to find part-time or temporary work.
We certainly have a pool of labour in this country, yet farmers widely acknowledge that they have relied on seasonal agricultural workers, who since 2008 have come in from Bulgaria and Romania, and that they have used the whole quota. Farmers can provide many case studies and much anecdotal evidence showing what a struggle it is for them to source local labour.
For a number of reasons, it would be wise of the Government—the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office—to start planning ahead. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme will run to the end of 2013. By the time the 2014 picking season starts and thereafter, there will have been an incredibly important change in the benefits system in this country: universal credit will have come into force. That will do exactly what my hon. Friend described: it will allow people to take on seasonal or part-time work and, in terms of the impact on their benefits, the first few thousand pounds will be disregarded. They will not run into today’s absurd situation of their housing and council tax benefit being withdrawn pound for pound. The benefits system will have changed when we come to the 2014 season, and that will change other things.
Something else that has changed since 2007-08 when the current scheme was implemented is unemployment throughout Europe. At the moment, 20,000 or 21,000 people come here from Bulgaria and Romania under the scheme. Are we really saying that by 2014 we will be unable to find enough people among the 400 million in Europe to pick the crops on our farms? The Government have a political mandate to reduce immigration from outside the EU and to try to create more employment in this country. I take a different view from that of my hon. Friend. I believe we must now make the most of the changes to the benefits system and the fact that we will be able to reward people for such work without them losing their benefits. We must start now to plan for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme for British workers.
The National Farmers Union, which does a fantastic job in lobbying for its members, suggests that as part of this scheme it should introduce education certifications such as level 1 food hygiene certificates and health and safety or first aid qualifications. These are skilled jobs. I will never forget going to the asparagus packing plant at Birlingham in my constituency and finding that, rather than asparagus being bundled with an elastic band, as found in the supermarkets, a £250,000 laser machine sorted the asparagus into 22 different grades to meet contracts from different supermarkets. These are high-tech businesses that require a level of skill. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government to work with providers of the Work programme and some of the sector skills bodies to come up with a package that would allow young people in this country to gain work experience, skills, qualifications and, most important, a lump sum of money to take home to their communities in another part of the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate. I, too, remember picking and gathering fruit, although to look at me one might think I ate more than I put into batches. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) mentioned machinery that can perform certain tasks. I find, however, that as well as difficulties with employment, farmers in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom are finding it difficult to get planning permission to diversify and help them to grow their businesses, which would create more employment.
I know that farmers across the country share that experience, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observation.
The Department for Work and Pensions agreed with the Minister to meet growers from my constituency. As a result of that meeting, we have set up a working group that will plan ahead with the DWP to see how we as a country can create a seasonal agricultural workers scheme for British workers. I look forward to the day when I can go into a British supermarket and put Worcestershire-grown horticultural items in my basket, knowing that those British fruit and vegetables were picked by British workers and that the money they were paid has stayed within Britain.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Dobbin, and to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing it.
Kent and Worcester may argue about which of them is the garden of England, but Angus is clearly the garden of Scotland, although my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) may wish to dispute that. Angus sits in the middle of the Scottish soft fruit and potato-growing areas, and I say to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) that the best asparagus is produced at Eassie in my constituency. It is absolutely delicious and in season now.
It is obvious that all hon. Members are keen to support agriculture throughout the UK, particularly produce from their own areas.
As I said, Angus sits in the middle of the Scottish soft fruit-producing area, and today I wish to concentrate on the employment problems faced by soft fruit growers. When I was growing up—it seems a long time ago now—it was commonplace during the school holidays to pick raspberries and strawberries, and to pick potatoes during the “tattie holidays”, as they are known in Scotland. It was a good way to make money to see us through other parts of the year.
The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong; there is nothing better than Scottish potatoes. Quite rightly, everybody will promote their local produce and it is part of our job to ensure that people know about the delicacies produced in our own areas.
Let me return to my point about soft fruit. Over the years, things have moved on and industry has, I dare say, become more professional and no longer needs to rely on the work of schoolchildren and others. The focus has moved to the employment of more direct seasonal labour, and the spread of cultivation methods such as polytunnels has expanded the types of fruit grown. As well as strawberries and raspberries, we are increasingly growing blueberries in my area. Traditionally they came from Poland, but they are now being grown in Scotland and other parts of the UK. That has led to changes in industry, as have the increasing demands of major supermarkets. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire mentioned the machinery that is now required to meet the huge demands supermarkets impose on industry, which has to produce good quality uniform produce quickly and to the supermarkets’ requirements. Recent trends include increased use of polytunnels for growing soft fruit, rather than open field production.
Horticulture is a vital part of the Scottish economy, particularly in areas such as mine. In total, the horticultural industry—fruit, vegetables and flower production—contributed some £241 million to the Scottish economy in 2010 and, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said, it contributes more than £3 billion to the UK. Most growers in my area rely to a greater or lesser extent on migrant labour, particularly people from Bulgaria and Romania who come to work in the UK under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. It is a huge pity that the issue of young people—principally those from EU accession states—coming to work in the UK agricultural sector has become completely tangled up with the more general issue of immigration. The vast majority of those who come to work in agriculture are in the country for a short, specific period and intend to return to their home nations at the end of their visa period. Unfortunately, as in many other areas, there is often a serious collision between perception and reality.
Under the current scheme, some 21,250 visas were issued last year for workers to come to the UK for periods of between five weeks and six months. Angus Growers, a co-operative that operates 19 farms in Angus and its surrounding areas, tells me that at the peak of the season it employed 2,000 people, the majority of whom were obtained through SAWS. Angus Growers is concerned that the current scheme is guaranteed only until the end of 2013, and it is worried about whether a replacement will be introduced after that. I appreciate that the Minister is in slightly difficult position because although he is responsible for agriculture, SAWS is run by the UK Border Agency, and I assume therefore that the decision on whether the scheme continues will be taken by the Home Office. Nevertheless, I would be interested to hear his perspective from an agricultural point of view.
Let me stress that the use of seasonal workers should not be seen as an example of growers looking for a source of cheap labour. SAWS is a detailed scheme and the minimum wage has to be paid.
My hon. Friend is making a typically robust and informative contribution. I represent many growers in Perthshire and my farmers report the same range of difficulties and concerns, in particular about SAWS and the fact that the scheme will end in 2013. I hope that we will have a solution.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the mixture of immigration and work. Growers in my constituency try to make the experience for people who come to our country as positive as possible, because they are the tourists and partners of the future. I am sure he agrees that it is unfortunate to get caught up in the idea of immigrant workers as cheap labour. They have a positive contribution to make, and we should encourage them to have a great time while they are in Scotland.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a point that I was about to come to. This is not just about the experience that workers gain when they go to Scotland. They will be great friends of Scotland and the rest of the UK in the future as their states accede to the EU. I know that some on the Conservative Benches may wish that that were not the case, but there you go. What we are debating is not a new phenomenon. Some of us have talked about how we picked fruit and vegetables in our youth, but I remember that when I was at university way back in the 1970s, many of my friends went abroad to do such jobs—for example, picking grapes in France. There has always been an exchange of young people, particularly students, doing seasonal work across Europe. That has contributed to an understanding and friendships across borders in Europe, and we should not lightly throw it away.
The hon. Member for West Worcestershire talked getting local people to do this work. Many growers have made great efforts to get local people to do the work. It is not as though they are simply relying on migrant labour. In my area, for example, in conjunction with the local authority, they set up the “berry scheme”, with the aim of providing opportunities for the long-term unemployed. It was not, I have to say, particularly successful, but I agree with the hon. Lady’s argument that we must encourage people to consider horticulture as a career, because it is an important industry.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of the migration that might have to occur might be people moving for a seasonal period from pockets of high unemployment in this country, rather than his local growers and farmers looking exclusively in the Angus area?
I think there are particular difficulties with that. Under SAWS, the farmer must pay the minimum wage and provide living quarters for the migrant labour. It might be more difficult to do that within the UK because of the structure of the benefits system in the UK, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said. Everything is worth looking at, but we must remember that much of the labour in agriculture is very hard and not everyone who is long-term unemployed would be able to undertake it, although undoubtedly some would.
On that point, I represent a rural constituency that relies heavily on seasonal agricultural labour, but we also have unemployment that is well below the national average. In those circumstances, it is imperative that our farmers are able to recruit the workers they need to keep their businesses going.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The fact remains that whatever the reason, there are difficulties in getting sufficient labour for seasonal work. If growers cannot do so, that could have a devastating effect on the local industry, which, as I said, is an important part of many of our local economies.
I stress—I think the hon. Member for West Worcestershire touched on this point—that it is wrong to regard the horticultural industry as providing work just for seasonal labour. There is a huge infrastructure behind the horticultural industry: there are jobs in administration and marketing, as well as in processing, packing and transporting the fruit, which, because of the nature of the produce, must be done quickly and efficiently. That contributes to many full-time jobs in local economies. Migrant labour underpins full-time jobs for local people. That point must be made strongly. We should not consider this issue in isolation.
I will give an example of what can happen. Earlier this year, daffodil growers in my constituency, who also rely on migrant labour, found that they had a problem. Normally what happens is that the daffodils in England bloom earlier, so daffodils are picked by labour that moves north as the season progresses. However, this year, we had wonderful weather earlier in Scotland when it was less good in England, with the result that the English daffodils were delayed while the Scottish daffodils came out in bloom. The result was that the labour that would normally pick Scottish daffodils in my constituency was not available, as it was still employed in England. It was hard for my daffodil growers to get sufficient labour, with the result that many daffodils spoiled in the field. If we are not careful, that could happen with much of our soft fruit. Growers are very concerned about it happening if they cannot obtain sufficient labour.
The growers and the agricultural industry in general are very much aware of the issues surrounding migrant labour, some of which we have heard about today, but they point out, as I have done, that many of these people come to this country to earn money to continue their studies and to improve their English. As I said, many of them will go back to their home countries having had a good experience and will be friends of Scotland and the rest of the UK for many years to come.
The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey gave details of the proposal from the NFU for amending SAWS to continue the use of migrant labour while dealing with some of the concerns that have been raised. The proposal is strongly supported by the growers in my constituency. It would return the scheme to its roots and make it a youth experience programme aimed particularly at agricultural students. As the hon. Gentleman said, the original scheme incorporated an educational element in the placement, and reintroducing that not only could benefit growers in the UK, but is likely to assist the development of agriculture in other nations. I will not go into detail about the proposed scheme, as the hon. Gentleman gave the details and I do not want to repeat what he said. However, the NFU believes that it would work, and it seems to me that such a scheme would strike the balance of fairness between the needs of the agricultural industry and the Government’s concerns.
As I said, I realise that the Minister here today is not responsible for SAWS, but I would be interested to hear his views, from an agricultural perspective, on whether the Government are likely to proceed with the renewal of SAWS post-2013, to give some assurance to horticulture that the Government are behind the industry, recognise its problems and will help it to continue to contribute strongly to both the Scottish and the UK economies.
It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship of the debate, Mr Dobbin. I begin by congratulating not only the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate—a very good and wide-ranging one—but my opposite number, the Minister, who I understand has just celebrated 25 years in the House. I offer him my sincere congratulations. I do not think that he will get a telegram from the Queen for serving 25 years, but I understand that he has had a pat on the back from the Prime Minister. It is a tremendous track record, so very well done to him.
I thank the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for securing the debate. It is a good opportunity to discuss quite a wide range of issues that affect agricultural workers and employers. He made a thoughtful and, sometimes, provocative contribution. All the points that he raised are worthy of debate. I know that the Minister will want to respond to the serious points that he raised.
Many hon. Members here today have declared their youthful experience of working in the fields up and down the land. I will include myself among them. With my brother, I used to pick potatoes on the fields of Gower. Tremendous potatoes they are, too—but not in my constituency, so I am advertising another’s. It was back-breaking work. So many hon. Members have declared their great experience of doing that and the skills that they developed that, during the summer recess, we might be able to fill the shortages ourselves if we return to the fields.
Many hon. Members have focused primarily on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Although discussions are ongoing in his Department and others, has he made an estimate of any shortage post 2013? What will he be doing to avoid such a shortage? Some estimate must have been made to deal with the concerns raised by hon. Members about shortages that will occur if we do not have something in place post 2013. Perhaps the Minister can share that with us, unless he anticipates that, because of measures that are under way, there will be no shortages whatever, crops will not lie in the fields and go to waste across various parts of the garden of England or Scotland and production lines will not come to a standstill, as we fail to sort those products for market.
I was pleased to hear of the meeting that was arranged by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) recently. It is good that that has prompted some action. If I understood correctly what she said, the group that has been set up will bring together the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and others, including, I hope, the Minister. Will it be a powerful group chaired by the Minister, or a Minister or senior official? Given its importance to agriculture, I hope that the Minister will do so, although I understand that SAWS is the responsibility of a different Department. Members would welcome the group having a ministerial chair to ensure that it delivers post 2013 and is not left to senior officials, no matter how good they are. I hoped that such a group would be in action, without being prompted by the hon. Lady’s great efforts on behalf of her community, or by the farming unions. The Minister will want to update us on that.
I congratulate James Chapman, the former chairman of the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. As the Minister will know, he lost his arm in a farming accident. When he considered what to do in response, he bravely and admirably decided to campaign on farm safety, which we have not yet touched on today. He was recently awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list, on which we congratulate him. It reminds us how critical farm safety still is and how much more needs to be done to ram home the message about the need to protect not only oneself, but fellow workers in dangerous agricultural settings.
This week marks the first anniversary of the Farm Safety Crusade. I pay tribute to the work of farming unions and insurers who are promoting farm safety against the backdrop, of which we all know, of a year-on-year rise in the number of accidents and fatalities. NFU Mutual has seen year-on-year increases in serious accidents on the farms that it insures. Shocking statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that agriculture now holds the unenviable position of being the UK’s most dangerous industry, with 42 people killed in the year to April 2011. Over a 10-year period, more than 435 people have been killed as a result of agricultural work activities. Tragically, that it almost one person every week.
A great deal of good work is going on to turn that around, from the nationwide Farm Safety Crusade to efforts such as the “farm safe” campaign and the annual “efficiency with safety” competition arranged by Cornish Mutual and Cornwall Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. There are many other sector-led initiatives around the country. What efforts are the Government making in Whitehall and across the regions to turn around the rising tide of fatalities and serious injuries in farming and to reinforce the efforts being made in the field by others?
The Minister recognises the criticality of the issue, so I urge him to ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to focus her mind on it and personally meet the HSE with him to push hard for a solution. I was disappointed to learn in a written answer on 24 November that there had been no recent discussions with the HSE on the safety of agricultural workers because the responsibility fell to another Department. I honestly do not think that that is adequate. I know that the Minister takes the issue very seriously. Will he give an undertaking that he and the Secretary of State will meet the HSE to discuss the problem and see what more can be done? It is not simply something that has happened under the present Government; I have made it clear that agricultural accidents and fatalities have been a rising trend.
The work of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is of huge importance.
It is indeed, but as I will not be present on the Front Bench for the next debate, I will take the opportunity to comment. The GLA has been commented on by other hon. Members.
The action that the GLA takes to tackle worker exploitation in the agricultural, horticultural, shellfish and food processing sectors is second to none. Its success has been acknowledged by everyone in the House and in wider reports, including those by the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield, the Wilberforce Institute and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The Minister and I debated the issue in February, and it will shortly be debated again in this Chamber, but at that time we were still awaiting the outcome of the red tape challenge, so we were a little in the dark.
On 24 May, the Government announced the outcome of the challenge and the changes that they intend to make to the GLA. The announcement included news that the GLA has taken a risk-based approach and will no longer regulate low-risk sectors. That includes apprenticeships, forestry, land agents and voluntary workers. Automatic compulsory inspections of businesses when they first apply will be abolished. The licensing period will be extended from 12 months to two years for highly compliant businesses. There will be a move to allow shellfish farm businesses with exclusive rights to use the seashore to use their workers to grade and gather shellfish stock, without needing to be licensed as gangmasters. There will be a substitution of administrative fines and penalties for low-level and technical minor offences, which we debated in some detail during the last such debate. Alternatives to prosecution when taking enforcement action against a labour-user who uses an unlicensed gangmaster will be explored. There will be a focus on the gross abuse of workers by unscrupulous gangmasters who commit multiple offences, such as tax evasion and human trafficking.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to the GLA. I say that in spite of the appalling Beechcroft recommendation to abolish it—an opinion reflected in some of the responses to the recommendation. It was an unacceptable and dangerous proposal, and I am glad that the Government have said that they will not accept that or other recommendations in the report. The Minister will agree that the bottom line must be that the most vulnerable workers in our society are not abandoned. What impact assessment did the Government undertake—I am sure that they undertook one—before announcing the changes? What will be the impact on protecting vulnerable workers? Where are the areas of risk in this risk-based approach?
We have had some success in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency, integrating migrant workers into permanent jobs. Examples include Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct. One employs 260 people and the other just over 100 people—coming from nothing. Perhaps we can use good practice in other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly Northern Ireland, as an example of how we might do things better elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman knows the area well, and an advantage of the devolution of administration and powers is that we can, and should, learn lessons about differential applications across the UK. We need to do more within the joint committees that bring the devolved Administrations together and in discussions between Ministers, so that those lessons can be learned. He makes a good point. We should not always try to work from a completely blank sheet of paper, but look at what works well elsewhere.
Will the Minister provide us with the timetable for changes to the GLA? His written statement of 24 May was not clear on the consultation timetable or process. Is he in a position to provide us with that now? Will he confirm that the GLA will have the necessary resources to tackle worker exploitation in the relevant sectors, even under the new approach? We all want the GLA, in its revised form, to be lean, mean and effective, but that requires resourcing, so I seek assurances on that. Will he also provide information on how he intends the GLA to work more collaboratively with other organisations, including the Serious Organised Crime Agency?
I want briefly to talk about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, which I have discussed on several occasions with the Minister and other hon. Members. He knows how strongly I and the Labour party feel on the issue. That strength of feeling is shared by some of the farming unions, such as the Farmers Union of Wales, and by farm workers and the Welsh Government. The AWB protects 152,000 farm workers in England and Wales and has mirror effects on others in the sector. It ensures that people working in the countryside, from apprentices to farm managers, get a fair deal. In its 62-year history, it has provided basic pay and protection for fruit pickers, farm labourers and foresters. That covered wages, but also holidays, sick pay, overtime and bereavement leave.
The Minister will no doubt say—we have had this discussion many times—that many farmers pay well above the agreed wage rates; and I do not disagree. He may also say that there is a national minimum wage—so what is the fuss? However, the AWB does far more than set pay minimums, and when it is gone, the pay and other terms and conditions are threatened. The wages of 42,000 casual workers could drop as soon as those workers finish their next job, once the AWB is gone. It is probable that the wages of the remaining 110,000 will be eroded over time. Ministers have said in the past that farm workers will be protected by the minimum wage, but only 20% cent of farm workers are on grade 1 of the AWB. The rest earn considerably more than the minimum wage. The downward pressure on higher grades in economically difficult times will be high. Children who do summer jobs or part-time jobs currently receive just over £3 per hour, but they are not covered at all by the national minimum wage. They will have no wage protection—unless the Minister wants to correct me on that—when they do holiday work, as has been mentioned, or weekend work, after the board is abolished.
Does the shadow Minister recognise that agriculture has changed dramatically in the past 20 years? A combine harvester costs £250,000 and no farmer will put an unskilled member of staff in charge of machinery of that value. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about laser machinery for measuring asparagus. The salaries that are now attracted in agriculture are far above those provided for under the Agricultural Wages Board. I wonder whether times have moved on and it is no longer necessary.
Time will tell if we abolish the board. However, not only has the Farmers Union of Wales welcomed its retention in Wales—and discussions are ongoing to see how that can take effect if the AWB is abolished in England; it has said it welcomes the clarity that the board gives on a range of conditions for agricultural workers. That is particularly true for small farmers who do not want to get into endless discussions about individual contracts, with different people on different wages for essentially the same job, and consequent disputes. The AWB provides a very good service for an industry that is often fragmented and disparate. The point that the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) makes about modern technology and food processing is valid for many parts of the industry, but things are not uniformly like that. That is why the Labour party sees the AWB as providing a safety blanket, to ensure that all workers’ terms and conditions are properly protected.
DEFRA’s own figures suggest that the abolition of the AWB will take £9 million a year out of the rural high street through holiday and sick pay alone—that will be £9 million coming out of the rural economy, because it is not going into people’s pockets in one way or another. That is not an insignificant figure, and it is worthy of further consideration. In the 18 months or so since the Government announced their intention to abolish the AWB, a lot has changed. The economy has gone into a double dip recession. The cost of living has risen dramatically. Food and fuel prices have risen well above inflation. Overall unemployment is up, and youth unemployment is chillingly high at more than 1 million. As we watch developments on the continent unfold day by day, it appears there will be no improvement in people’s circumstances for some time yet. A study commissioned by The Guardian and published this week showed that almost 7 million working-age adults are living in extreme financial stress, from pay cheque to pay cheque, one push from penury, despite being in employment and largely independent of state support. Many of those will be agricultural workers in rural communities.
I ask the Minister to think again. Why, against that backdrop, do the Government insist on pressing ahead with the policy, taking money out of the rural economy and the pockets of rural agricultural workers, and making things harder for people, many of whose wages will fall as a result? Those in rural areas already face significant challenges in housing, transport and access to schools. The abolition of the AWB may prove another difficult hurdle to overcome. However, if the Minister is determined to press ahead, I want to ask some additional questions. We are all awaiting an announcement on when the AWB will be abolished, but we have not had that clarity yet. Yesterday evening, I met with the farmers unions—and some farmers unions, of course, support the abolition. They were asking when there would be clarity and a timetable: when will it happen? When does the Minister intend to lay an order before the House abolishing the AWB? Farmers’ patience is being stretched. In the mean time, can he confirm that negotiations with the AWB for the year ahead have been concluded? Will the pending abolition affect those? Has he asked his Department to reassess the proposals in the light of current economic circumstances? If not, why not?
I recently submitted a freedom of information request to the Minister’s Department for the impact assessment of the abolition of the AWB. It was rejected. No doubt he will explain why, and give the normal Whitehall reasons, but his response implied that the assessment would be published soon, so when will we see it? We want to get behind the detail, to see what the effect will be on rural communities. In the absence of the impact assessment, will the Minister guarantee that, on the abolition of the AWB, children will not be paid below the minimum wage, that the wages of workers in AWB pay bands will not be depressed, that rents on farm cottages will not rapidly escalate to full market value, or tenants be turfed out because they cannot afford them, and that when new recruits are taken on it will not be on inferior terms, creating a two-tier work force for the same jobs?
If the Minister doubts that that might happen, and thinks it is only I who say it, I refer him to the Incomes Data Services report for the Low Pay Commission, “The implications for the National Minimum Wage of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in England and Wales”. What does the change mean for the national minimum wage, where the Government’s defence lies— “Don’t worry, the NMW will take care of this”? The report states:
“Once abolished, many of the provisions of the Order will either be only partially covered by other statutory employment legislation, or not at all. Employment legislation does not make any provision for specific rates of pay linked to skills, specific rates of pay for overtime, a minimum rate of pay for workers of compulsory school age, rights to paid training, standby duty and night allowances, entitlement to paid bereavement leave, a birth or adoption grant”
and so on. It also states that
“abolition removes protection for young workers of compulsory school age”
“the statutory minimum rates for both workers aged 16 to 20 and apprentices will be significantly less under the NMW than they currently are under the Agricultural Wages Order.”
Hon. Members have spoken passionately about the need to enhance skills and training in the agricultural sector, but the report states clearly that the wages of apprentices and those learning their skills will be depressed.
The report states:
“There may also be issues around the accommodation offset, whereby in some cases agricultural workers may be worse off under the NMW rules”,
and it explains why:
“There is no such threshold under the NMW”
for workers’ accommodation. It also states:
“The NMW rules on accommodation offset allow deductions to be made even if the worker could have lived elsewhere. This could mean that agricultural workers who are not currently subject to the accommodation offset…could be subject to it in future.”
“On piece work, agricultural piece workers are currently guaranteed to get at least the minimum rate appropriate to their grade.”
That is more favourable than the national minimum wage approach,
“where slower workers can earn less than NMW if a properly assessed ‘fair’ piece rate is applied.”
It is not true to say that the abolition of the AWB is not a problem because the national minimum wage will deal with the issues. There is far more to the AWB’s terms and conditions than that, which is why I am asking the Minister to think again.
I thank the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for raising this important debate, and thank all hon. Members for some very good contributions. We want to see a rural economy that works for all working people. It should be fair across the board, as these are tough times for all those who work in agriculture. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I can add my experience to the debate, Mr Dobbin. I am probably the one who has most recently done such activities, and I am probably the only one who, as a farm manager a long, long while ago, employed such groups of people, which was not always the easiest personnel management issue that one faced.
One advantage of speaking last in the debate is that I can put to rest the argument about which is the most important constituency in the country for the production of fruit and vegetables. Although I might be prepared to acknowledge other constituencies for fruit, I certainly will not do so for vegetables. Cambridgeshire and my fenland constituency are renowned for the production of high-quality vegetables and salad crops. I know that that is a somewhat light-hearted comment, but it means that for 25 years as a constituency member—I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for his personal congratulations on my time in this place—I have been involved in many of the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) raised, because I have substantial growers trying to employ large numbers of people to harvest salad and root crops in my constituency. I congratulate him very much on initiating this debate. I knew his main thrust was about SAWS, because he kindly furnished me with a copy of what he was going to say, but I was not surprised when other hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Ogmore, used the opportunity to raise other issues.
In 2011, the total UK agricultural work force—a varied work force that includes farmers, business partners, directors and spouses—numbered around 476,000, of which approximately 177,000 were employed workers. Unlike most industries’ balance between employed and self-employed people, in agriculture only about a third of the total are employed. Like other sectors, agriculture requires a reliable source of labour, but perhaps more than other industries it needs flexibility, to meet the peak seasonal demands of planting, harvesting and cropping. Such work is always there but, as shown by this year’s experience of the daffodil crop, recounted by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), it is subject to the vagaries of the weather. No Government or board can ensure that crops across the country harvest sequentially, which is the ideal for the movement of daffodil pickers from Cornwell to his constituency.
Clearly, we need a constant and ready supply of temporary labour. As every speaker today has said, that used to be provided by students and others. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey will know, large sections of the London population used to move down to Kent or Herefordshire for hop picking. Those days are gone, however, and we have seen the advent of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which has for a long time played a key role in meeting seasonal demands. Traditionally, as my hon. Friend said, SAWS allowed students from universities outside the European Union to work in the UK agricultural industry for periods of up to six months, and provided an opportunity for students not only to develop skills in agriculture but to learn the English language and experience a different culture and way of life. Of course the EU was much smaller in then; as it has expanded, the role of SAWS has changed.
As several hon. Members have said, the Home Office is responsible for the administration of SAWS. Its assessment of a continuing need for the scheme changed in the light of EU enlargement in 2004 whereby many countries that previously sent students under SAWS did not need to continue to do so because there was free movement within Europe. My own sons used to work in the sector and regularly worked alongside large numbers of Poles and people from the Baltic states in particular. [Interruption.] My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), is delighted at the support for Polish workers. In those days of course, the gulf in wealth was such that workers could come to the UK, work for six months and literally go home and buy a house; for them, it was often a major economic contribution to their future life. Obviously, however, once those countries acceded to the EU, the situation changed. The subsequent introduction by the Home Office of the points-based system to manage economic migration closed down low-skilled migration from non-member states.
That brings me to the change made in 2007 by the previous Government to restrict workers from Romania and Bulgaria. Although those countries had acceded to the EU, transition arrangements were put in place. That is consistent with the requirements of the Community preference principle, which states that preference in access to labour markets should be given to EU nationals over workers from third countries. The SAWS quota level for 2012 and 2013 is set at 21,250.
SAWS was due to close at the end of 2011, but following the decision to retain restrictions on labour market access for Bulgarians and Romanians for a further two years, my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration announced at the end of last year that it would continue until 2013. As I hope hon. Members will appreciate, I am very much aware of the desire to know what is to happen after 2013. I can say that DEFRA is working closely with colleagues from the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions on the matter; however, no decision has been taken yet on whether a successor scheme to SAWS will be put in place. We clearly need to look at the evidence—we do not yet have all that in hand—that the sector is unable to meet its seasonal labour needs from the UK and the rest of the EU. In that respect, the Home Office has indicated that it intends to ask the independent Migration Advisory Committee to advise on the case for a future scheme. Obviously, I expect that stakeholders will have the opportunity to provide evidence to the committee.
At this stage, it is important to refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about the UK labour market and to my own experiences as a constituency MP. In the past, major efforts to bring busloads of unemployed people from centres of high unemployment into Cambridgeshire to do this work have been an abject failure. The bus may come full the first day, but the second day it is half-full and the third day there is only one person on it. People just do not stick it. With the changes that are being made under the universal credit arrangements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey mentioned, we all hope to get a lot of the long-term UK unemployed back to work. That is the objective and we hope and believe that the changes should work, but we do not yet know what their precise consequences will be.
The wider context, which several hon. Members referred to, is the issue of overall migration. I share the view expressed by the hon. Members for Angus and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that there has been some confusion over the role of SAWS. I fully accept that the history of SAWS is that the vast majority of people who come to the UK under SAWS go home when they are supposed to and that the number of people who fail to do so is minimal—in single figures, I believe. Nevertheless, we must ensure that our overall objective to reduce net migration is not undermined.
The key issue will be whether any new scheme, if there is one, can be effectively managed to ensure the departure of participants who come from outside the EU. To prevent confusion, I should emphasise that people from Bulgaria and Romania will have free access under any new scheme. It is not the case that we are stopping them coming to the UK; they will be able to come anyway, even without SAWS. The end of SAWS will not reduce in any way the potential supply of agricultural labour. Those people who are coming to the UK under SAWS will still be able to come. The issue is whether they will then come for other reasons—for example, to seek other employment—as has happened over the years with people who have come from those countries that joined the EU earlier. Obviously the UK is not alone in using migrant labour; many other countries in the world use it, but given the increased scope for labour migration from within the EU since 2004, we must approach the case for more labour migration from outside the EU carefully and soberly.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire discussed whether we should rely on migrant workers to meet the seasonal demands for labour. As she said, the Government are already taking steps to get the long-term unemployed back to work, and agriculture has a role to play in that process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey asked about prisoners. Working outside prison, whether in paid or unpaid work, is an important step towards reintegrating those prisoners who are preparing for release back into society. The Government are committed to expanding the number of opportunities for prisoners to volunteer to work in the community or to work in paid employment. As my hon. Friend recognised, the highest priority clearly has to be public protection, and all prisoners working outside a prison are rigorously risk-assessed. My hon. Friend also referred, quite properly, to the National Farmers Union’s policy paper, “A Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) for the Next Decade”, which refers to the employment of prisoners and ex-prisoners. He said that that paper notes there is some caution among employers about employing prisoners and ex-prisoners, and I will not repeat all the points that he rightly made. However, in relation to SAWS, I can assure him that DEFRA is fully aware of the need to ensure that crops are harvested.
As an aside, I should say that one of the very satisfying developments in the past few years has been the reclaiming of the domestic fruit market Domestic producers had lost that market to imports, but now a much higher proportion of fruit consumed in this country is produced here. It would be absolutely tragic if we allowed that trend of increasing domestic production to go into reverse because we were unable to harvest domestic fruit.
My hon. Friend referred to the common agricultural policy, greening and the possible switch between the two pillars of CAP. Let me try to explain the present position, although I will not go into detail because, as hon. Members know, the CAP is so complicated that I could use the next few debates trying to explain it in full.
We are now at the end of the Danish presidency of the EU and in the Agriculture Council on Monday we took stock, with a paper from the presidency about where negotiations and discussions have gone. Under the greening proposals, the European Commission is suggesting that 30% of direct payments should be conditional on achieving an element of greening in pillar one. The British Government’s position is quite clear: we believe that greening is ideally dealt with under pillar two, where it is possible to make more effective targeted payments and achieve better value for money. However, it looks as if greening will be dealt with under pillar one; if so, we will have to accept that. We are therefore in discussion with many other countries about how we can adapt the Commission’s “three-legged stool” to which my hon. Friend referred—the three criteria—to ensure that British farmers, particularly English farmers in stewardship schemes, are not disadvantaged by those criteria.
I have already said, and I emphasise again now, that if people sign up to a stewardship scheme and subsequently find that they are seriously disadvantaged, they will have the option to leave the scheme. I do not want that to happen and we are working very hard to try to ensure that membership of a stewardship scheme is somehow reflected in meeting the criteria of the greening proposals. I cannot prophesy what the outcome will be, but I assure hon. Members that that is the objective. I guess it is an objective shared by all hon. Members that our farmers should not be disadvantaged. The Commission has referred to our farmers as champions of the environment, and that should be reflected in their ability to access payments.
On the widest aspects of the CAP, we want to see better value for money and a reduction in the overall CAP budget. We do not see why the CAP should be immune from the immense pressures facing the whole of the EU—not just the pressures arising from the euro crisis, but the overall pressures on the economies of member states. We believe—it says that in my brief, but I passionately believe it—that the day will dawn when subsidies and direct payments will disappear. I have believed that for a very long while. I want those involved in the CAP to face up to that and to begin to plan for it. It will not happen today or tomorrow, or in the current seven-year time scale, but I believe that it will happen; and not only do most people believe that it will happen eventually, but they want it to happen. For example, most of the younger generation of farmers want it to happen. We should be planning for that day.
What we need to be doing and what we want to see from the CAP is the introduction of measures to encourage the agriculture industry to become far more competitive, market-oriented and innovative. Given the global changes in the food market, those in the industry would consequently be able to achieve their necessary income from that market and from the increasing demand for food from across the globe.
We do not believe that changes to the CAP will have a significant impact on agricultural employment. The Scenar 2020 study prepared for the European Commission suggests that changes in employment are largely being driven by wider developments in the economy and improved efficiency in the sector. According to its own analysis, which was based on there being no reform of the CAP and no further trade liberalisation, the Commission expects a 25% fall in the agricultural work force across the EU by 2020.
To encourage employment rather than subsidise it, we need to make it easier for farm businesses to take on workers, which brings us, inevitably, to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Ogmore about the Agricultural Wages Board. I do not think that the Government have ever said, and I hope that I have never said it, that the minimum wage provisions entirely replaced the wide range of provisions under the Agricultural Wages Board. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman could read into the record a long list of statements made by the board. Self-evidently, the AWB does not want to be abolished, so it is hardly surprising that it said what it has. I have certainly never suggested that all the measures the board provides will be replicated by the minimum wage.
I simply want to put on the record that it was not the Agricultural Wages Board that made those statements. I was reading from an independent report for the Low Pay Commission that was commissioned from the independent consultancy Incomes Data Services, Thomson Reuters. The report runs to about 100 pages, and I read from the conclusions, which are specific and evidence-based.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his clarification, and I am happy that the record has been corrected.
The key point, however—my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) really touched on it—is that we are talking about modernising an industry, and the fact that only 20% of the work force are on the basic rate makes the case for not needing it, and does not, as the shadow Minister suggested, somehow undermine it. The reality is that the vast majority of people are above the basic rate, and I emphasise that no one already employed in the industry can lose out, because they are protected by their current contracts. Of course some criteria are not included, but there used to be a plethora of such wages boards and councils—largely set up by Labour Governments—and many dealt with bits and bobs such as holiday pay and so on. We need to recognise, however, that in 13 years of the previous Labour Government, in which the hon. Gentleman served, not a single one of them was brought back. If it is so important that workers are covered by all those other arrangements, he needs to explain why the Labour Government did not bring back any of them back.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable. I can tell him that the Government are determined to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. Negotiations with the Welsh Assembly Government are ongoing, as he said, but I cannot tell him exactly when the board will be abolished. We intend to do it, but there are the negotiations and discussions to go through. As said said, the board has concluded the next round, and that will come into play. I am advised that the IDS report to which he referred gave scenarios, but that the Low Pay Commission concluded that it was too early to judge what the full implications of the board’s abolition would be.
I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman used this opportunity to talk about gangmasters, but as my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) is about to open a debate on that topic, I intend to reply to the points the hon. Gentleman raised in my response to that debate. If he wants to stay and listen, I am sure that you, Mr Dobbin, or a successor Chair, will allow that.
I will end by talking about safety, which is of such great importance. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was just being kind or whether he knew about this, but I feel passionately about safety because within a fortnight of joining the agricultural work force at the age of 17, I witnessed a fatal accident in which someone of my age was killed within a few feet of me. That has had a lasting effect on my attitude to farm safety. I was a victim of a considerably less serious accident myself and I still bear the scars, so I take second place to no one in my concern for farm safety.
I am proud that a long time ago I won a Farmers Weekly competition on farm safety—that proves my credibility on the subject. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the industry’s record is horrendous and we should do everything we possibly can to remedy that. I cannot speak for the Secretary of State, but I happily assure the hon. Gentleman that I will speak to the Health and Safety Executive. He should not take from the fact that the meeting to which he referred has not taken place that there is any less enthusiasm or commitment to safety. I cannot repeat often enough that farms are not playgrounds. There is a place for young children—sadly, many of the accidents involve young children—but, in today’s world, that place is not in a farmyard.
The other factor affecting safety is that farming is often a lonely, remote activity, and people who might otherwise be saved die in accidents because of the distance from help or the inability to get help. I am pleased that there are now many technologies whereby people can call for emergency help—a bit like what we might find in sheltered housing, but much more sophisticated. That is good, but none of us can be too intense in our desire to drive down the scale of farm accidents. It is important to note that when I set up Richard Macdonald’s task force, I deliberately placed on it the health and safety representative for agriculture so that we would not be increasing any farm risks. That is hugely important.
I think that I have addressed the various questions—
I thank the Minister for his reassurances about health and safety. I do not doubt his personal commitment, or that he will meet with the Health and Safety Executive.
Is it too early to ask based on the evidence and the Minister’s privileged position of involvement in discussions with ministerial colleagues, whether DEFRA has a preference for something to replace the seasonal agricultural workers scheme post-2013, and whether there is any difference in stance between DEFRA and the Home Office or any other Department? Does the Minister have a preference to replace SAWS with another scheme?
The hon. Gentleman uses his delightful, gentle style to try to tempt me into doing something he knows full well from his own ministerial experience is verboten in ministerial circles—commenting on relationships with other Departments. I have no intention of being dragged into the trap.
As I quite properly said, we do not yet have all the information with which to form a judgment, but that is being worked on. I have described how the Home Office will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to look into the matter. Clearly, we will study the figures and assessments and talk to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office about the future work force, but I will not be tempted into any debate about what other Departments, or indeed my own, are considering.
I understand the Minister’s reluctance, but may I ask when we are likely to see any progress in the ongoing discussions, so that Parliament can also contribute to the debate post-2013? Will it be by the summer, or by the early autumn—September or November? Early autumn could become January.
The hon. Gentleman pushes and pushes, which is remarkable given that I have already taken nearly half an hour to respond to the debate. I cannot give him a timetable. I fully appreciate the concern about the industry. I have had my—I had better be more precise: I have had representations made to me by the industry, by my constituents, and obviously by Members this morning. I fully accept that the industry needs to know where its future work force will come from. We are working with other Departments to try to ensure that, but I am not in a position to make an affirmative statement at this moment.
I hope that I have picked up the majority of the points raised. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey on securing the debate. I should have also joined in the congratulations to Mr James Chapman, who I know, as the shadow Minster said. He has been a marvellous example of how people can use their own tragedies to help others.