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Seasonal Agricultural Workers

Volume 556: debated on Monday 7 January 2013

2. Whether her Department has taken steps to ensure the continuity of supply of seasonal agricultural workers following the lifting of restrictions on immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. (135578)

The transitional restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians come to an end at the end of this year. With reference to the agricultural industry, we will look to see whether any further schemes are necessary once the Migration Advisory Committee has reported to us in March this year.

As the Minister knows, the finest fruit and vegetables are grown in West Worcestershire. Can he reassure my farmers that they will be able to face the 2014 growing and picking season with the confidence that, working together with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there will be an adequate supply of people to pick the crops?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In December I met one of the West Midlands Members of the European Parliament, Anthea McIntyre, together with farmers who farm both in Herefordshire and in my constituency in the soft fruit sector. That may be the one respect in which I slightly disagree with my hon. Friend. I have listened to their concerns and will listen to what the Migration Advisory Committee says in its report before we take a decision early this year.

Precisely because of the sort of problems that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) raises, previous Conservative and Labour Governments took a hard look at the Agricultural Wages Board and decided to retain it. The present Government intend to abolish it. Surely that will just exacerbate the situation and leave agricultural workers without even the limited protection that the wages board provides.

I do not think that that is true at all. Those working in the agricultural sector are governed by the national minimum wage legislation, and as well as desk-based research the Migration Advisory Committee will be going out and listening to the sector concerned. I am confident that when it produces its evidence-based report in March, we will be fully informed and able to take a sensible decision for the sector.

As my hon. Friend has made clear, the scheme is incredibly important for farmers and growers throughout the country, certainly in Worcestershire. Can he confirm that throughout its long life the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has lived up to its name and the seasonal workers have returned to their country of origin at the completion of their work?

That is indeed the case. The MAC report will look both at providing labour to the sector and at how the scheme functions in meeting the Government’s commitments on controlling immigration. Both aspects will be important when the Government take the decision later this year.

On 17 October 2011, the former Immigration Minister, now the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), said:

“I believe in free movement. The Government believe in free movement.”—[Official Report, European Committee B, 17 October 2911; c. 18.]

On 21 November 2011 he said:

“Free movement has been, and is, one of the great achievements of the EU.”—[Official Report, European Committee B, 21 November 2011; c. 14.]

Does the Minister agree?

I do not demur from anything that my right hon. Friend has said, but that does not mean that we will not look at how that operates in our balance of competence reviews. Abuses do take place under free movement throughout Europe. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has discussed the issues at Justice and Home Affairs Councils and has found a lot of support from colleagues there. A road map has been set out by Justice Ministers throughout Europe to deal with the abuses that took place and were not dealt with by the Labour party when it was in power.

The Minister paid an extremely successful visit to my county of Herefordshire before Christmas, for which I thank him. Will he reassure me that SAWS will be preserved through the MAC process and that it is not formally part of the immigration figures at all but operates in an entirely separate category?

My hon. Friend correctly points out that it was his constituency that I visited in December. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the work being done by MAC. The whole point is that it is doing some evidence-based work to inform the Government’s decision. It will be looking at whether a successor scheme needs to come into force to ensure that the sector has access to adequate labour when Romanians and Bulgarians have alternative choices after the end of this year.

For the benefit of any uninitiated members of the public, those referring to SAWS are talking about the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, and the MAC of course is the Migration Advisory Committee. I am sure that 57 million people know that perfectly well, but it is as well to remind them.