I beg to move,
That this House has considered the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It is also a pleasure to see other colleagues here today, including members of the new all-party group for fruit and vegetable farming, of which I am the chair. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise British growers’ concerns about recruiting workers in the coming years. I will focus my comments on the fruit and vegetable industry, but I emphasise that a flexible, seasonal workforce is vital for other parts of the food and farming industry, such as sheep and poultry farming. The industry as a whole is worth more than £100 billion to the nation’s economy. Within that, horticulture is worth £3 billion. Fruit and vegetable farmers have a vital role to play in making us all healthier.
As the Minister knows, I represent the beautiful constituency of Faversham and Mid Kent in the heart of the garden of England. When I drive from Headcorn on one side of my constituency to Faversham and the surrounding villages on the other, I see fields full of great British fruit. Depending on the season, there are strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, apples, pears, cherries and plums. Apart from growing healthy local food, fruit and vegetable farmers are part of the fabric of rural life. British growers employ thousands of people across the food and drink sector, look after the environment and contribute to the local and national economy, but they are facing tough times. They are worried about the speed of the introduction of the national living wage, face uncertainty over our future relationship with Europe and struggle with falling farm-gate prices and declining profitability. While recent yields have been good and the volume of strawberries sold in the UK has increased dramatically, around half of fruit farms are making less than a 2% margin and fruit farmers’ incomes have fallen by 43% over the past five years.
From speaking to local farmers, I know that opinions were split over Brexit, but one thing that all growers are worried about is access to labour, particularly since our decision to leave the European Union. The horticulture industry needs thousands of seasonal workers every year to pick and pack their produce. The British Growers Association estimates that the horticulture industry employed 80,000 seasonal workers this year and forecasts that that need will increase to 95,000 by 2019. The vast majority of those seasonal workers come from the European Union, and they do demanding work hand-picking fruit and packing it into punnets with care and speed. We should put on record the fact that we welcome those seasonal workers to Britain and are grateful for their contribution to our economy. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is getting harder for farmers to recruit seasonal workers. The National Farmers Union’s end of season labour survey found that in 2015, nearly a third of growers had experienced problems recruiting workers. Some 69% of growers expect the situation to get worse by 2018.
I, too, represent an area with a large number of horticulture businesses, including fruit farms, soft fruit and glasshouses. We have a big food production sector, too. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need action immediately? The old seasonal agricultural workers scheme worked extremely well before 2013. We need a trial scheme to be brought in as soon as possible.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the need to bring something in soon. My farmers are asking for a new scheme to be trialled as of next year because of the problems they are already experiencing in recruiting workers for next year, but I will come on to that point.
Organisations that recruit seasonal workers, such as AG Recruitment in my constituency, have told me that there are four times fewer people looking for jobs than last year. The NFU surveyed seasonal worker recruitment companies, and nearly half said that between July and September 2016 they were unable to meet the demands of the sectors they were supplying. That compares with nearly 100% being able to recruit enough workers in January, February and March this year. One farmer in my constituency, Tim Chambers, has told me that normally he would expect around 80% of his workers to ask for a place next season as they leave. So far this year, it has been only 50%. David Figgis, another local farmer, says that compared with last year the number of seasonal workers he has been able to recruit to start in the new year has halved. There is already a problem recruiting workers, before we have even left the European Union.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent speech she is making. It chimes exactly with what I am hearing from growers in my patch. May I add that seasonal workers exactly fit the Government’s immigration policy, because the controlled environment that growers and farmers provide ensures that these are people who come and go, having done an excellent job in between?
My hon. Friend is completely right about that, and I will come on to that point. Under the previous scheme, we know that the vast majority of seasonal workers went home after working. It is not a question of immigration.
Coming back to the current problem of recruiting workers, one issue is that the falling pound means that wages sent home are worth less than before. It is a fact that EU workers are feeling a lot less welcome, and many of these workers have a choice as to where they work. They do not have to come and work in the UK; they are in demand across the whole European Union. Another farmer in my constituency, Simon Elworthy, has told me that there is a genuine risk of British fruit going unpicked next year because of a shortage of labour.
Like other Members, this issue affects parts of my constituency. The west Lancashire part grows a lot of vegetables. Will my hon. Friend note that when we met the NFU, it said that it was not just the UK that was reliant on migrant labour? We need to put paid to that myth that all the workers could be UK-grown—all OECD countries are reliant on labour from outside their borders to pick fruit and vegetables.
My hon. Friend is completely right about other OECD nations. I will mention other countries that have seasonal agricultural workers schemes for exactly that reason in a moment.
Another point that has been made by several of my local farmers is that because of the shortage of labour, there is a risk that British fruit farmers may go out of business. I mentioned how tight their margins are, but if we add to that an inability to pick all the produce because of a labour shortage, they will struggle to stay in business. One consequence is that we will probably see the cost of British fruit go up. That will happen just at the point when we want to improve our balance of trade. Fruit is a sector where I would argue we are among the best—and perhaps are the best—in the world. I suspect that my colleagues who, like me, have strawberry growers in their constituencies agree that you cannot beat a great British strawberry. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The noise around the room suggests that there is consensus on that point. Despite that high quality, there is a risk that we may see British produce replaced by imports. What an enormous shame that would be. It would clearly not be a good thing economically.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I am sure she will agree that it is not just about the farmers struggling on workers or prices, but the processors that process the fruit or vegetables. In Northern Ireland, some of those factories are dependent on people from other countries, who can make up 40% and 60% of their workforce.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I am focusing my comments on pickers, because that is the most visible part of the supply chain in my constituency, but there are hundreds and thousands of workers involved in the whole supply chain—between the plant and the table, so to speak—including large numbers of packers, processors and all that. The whole supply chain is affected.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. The issue is not only about processing in factories. In my constituency of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, a big farming area, up to 95% of factory workers are migrants. The issue is not only about fruit and veg, but about bacon and so on. Beyond that, the jobs cannot necessarily be done by my own constituents. I have only 635 at the moment who are looking for work. That is a big problem, too.
My hon. Friend rightly refers to the large number of people working in the supply chain. Most of us—I know this is the case in my constituency—do not have many people looking for work.
Farmers have told me how their EU workers are genuinely worried at the moment about their legal rights to be in the UK. There are also concerns about their safety following reports of attacks on migrant workers. I hope the Minister will reiterate that the status of EU workers in the UK remains unchanged. It would be helpful to communicate that clearly to EU workers in the UK to make absolutely sure that they feel welcome and understand that legally they are allowed to remain and work in the UK while we are in the European Union.
The recent referendum result was decisive and, rightly, the Government plan to negotiate a Brexit deal that controls free movement. However, that creates a challenge for an industry that relies on seasonal migrant labour largely from the European Union. This is where the Government may be able to help. I want the Minister to look into piloting a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme, known as SAWS, for 2017, next year.
We used to have a seasonal agricultural workers scheme until 2013, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) has mentioned. Similar schemes exist in other OECD countries, including New Zealand, Canada, the US and Australia. Organisations from the NFU and the Fruit Advisory Services to the Migrant Advisory Committee agree that our old seasonal agricultural workers scheme worked well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) mentioned. SAWS had robust entry and exit checks, which meant that more than 98% of those who came to work in the UK returned home when their work was complete. For that reason, those coming to Britain under SAWS did not count towards immigration figures. This debate on SAWS should not be seen as part of a wider debate on immigration. It is very much about the workforce for a specific sector.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I congratulate her on securing this debate. On the seasonal workers who return home after they have worked here, whom she has mentioned several times, it is obviously the case that they are able to secure employment here more easily and more readily than is the case closer to home in their own nation states. As in so many other issues relevant to the Brexit negotiations, their countries benefit from the moneys that they earn here and return to their own nation states to spend, so it is not a one-way system; it is a two-way process that should benefit farmers in the UK and the workers’ countries of origin as well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. On the new scheme that we would like to pilot, we would expect it to include all the positives of the old scheme: oversight by the Home Office; checks on arrival and departure; restrictions on the length of placement; and independently accredited standards.
People often ask, “Why can’t British farmers employ British labour to do all the work? Why do we look to recruit people from overseas?” I have brought this up with farmers in my constituency. I know that they and many others have tried to recruit locally, and it is possible to recruit small numbers locally. I held a jobs fair in Maidstone a couple of months ago. Representatives were there from the local fruit farms and they recruited workers on that day. However, the problem, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is that there simply are not enough people looking for work. It is almost a downside of the very low unemployment rate that we have, which overall is clearly a good thing, but the fact is that there is not a swathe of people looking for work.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, and I refer Members to my declaration of interest. On a good labour supply, horticultural farmers and producers often plan 10 years ahead, so they are planning for well into the 2020s at the moment. For them to plan, they need a good labour supply and Government policy to deliver that, or they will not invest now for the longer term.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the investment decisions made in the farming sector where plans are made years in advance. It takes a long time for fruit plants to produce a crop, so farmers have to plan ahead and they need to feel secure about their future workforce. There is a short-term and a long-term problem, so reassurance is needed.
On the scale of the problem, in the picking season, farmers in my constituency need thousands of extra workers. A single large farm needs about 1,000 extra workers in the peak picking season. Across my constituency, between 5,000 and 10,000 seasonal workers are needed, and it is a pretty long season because strawberries can now be grown from March to October. However, in my constituency, only a few hundred people are on jobseeker’s allowance, so there is a big gap between the scale of the demand and the number of people looking for work. There is a real problem of numbers.
The days of fruit picking as a holiday job for students are long gone. We not only have a very long season, but supermarkets put enormous pressures on farmers, demanding absolutely impeccable quality and consistency of product that has to be available at high speed to meet demand. That involves picking at a very fast rate, which requires workers who are experienced and physically fit. Although the work is seasonal, workers do it for a significant period of time, often year after year. They cannot just show up and do the work for a couple of weeks. That is a myth that I want to debunk.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on a concise debate. I have similar issues with growers in the vale of Evesham in my constituency. On the supermarkets that she mentioned, does she agree that they have an important role to play on pricing in their negotiations with farmers, because the price point is another pressure on many of our farmers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Supermarkets clearly have an important role to play on price. We want the price to reflect the cost of production. However, there is a balance to strike. If prices go up significantly, will British consumers still buy the product at the same rate? It is not an easy nut to crack. I will do my utmost to make sure I am concise, as my hon. Friend commented, and I am coming to the end of my speech.
Although some say that we should solve the problem through British recruitment, there is another approach that I have sometimes heard proposed, which is that we should solve the problem through mechanisation. These days all fruit and vegetables could be farmed mechanically using robots without a substantial workforce. There have definitely been significant advances in mechanisation. Lots of processes are now much more automated and mechanised. The horticulture industry is investing in mechanisation. I recently heard about a machine that has been developed for the robotic picking of strawberries, but that is some way off. It may be a decade or so before that becomes a real prospect.
The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) made a point about price. Many of the machines are extremely costly and investing in them will not solve the problem of the prices paid for produce. The machines are possibly a dead end.
The hon. Gentleman has made exactly the point that I was coming to. Mechanised fruit picking for many fruits is some way off, and it would be expensive, particularly in the early years. Many parts of fruit farming are capital intensive, so we could introduce new technologies only gradually; otherwise the product would be completely unaffordable. It will take some time, so he is absolutely right.
I will briefly repeat my requests to the Minister. Will he reiterate that the status of EU workers in the UK remains unchanged and emphasise that farm workers in the UK should and must feel welcomed, because we value their contribution to the economy? Will he look at issuing some guidance to farm workers confirming their legal rights to remain in the UK?
Will the Minister look at trialling a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme from next year? That would be welcomed across the agricultural sector, especially by fruit and vegetable farmers in my constituency who want to be able to carry on producing great, fresh and healthy British fruit and vegetables.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this very important debate and on the way she presented her case. As she did so well, there is no need to go through the statistics again on why we need such a scheme. However, I underline the points she made about the need to plan ahead, given the challenges faced by the agricultural sector in particular. We know that labour is still at the heart of agriculture in the UK and we need to consider the issue in terms of other agricultural sectors, not just horticulture, such as livestock and poultry.
I understand the argument from Migration Watch that we need to focus on innovation in industry and that to introduce a seasonal workers scheme would detract from the importance of investing in technology and skilling up the workforce, but I accept the points made by the hon. Lady about the time needed to deliver that kind of step-change in the industry and the difficulties that will be faced. I am confident that the industry will invest and innovate, but as she said, it will take time, and the agricultural sector does not have time when it comes to fulfilling its labour needs in the immediate future and the medium term—because of Brexit. Therefore, although Migration Watch has a point, that is subsumed by the immediacy of the needs faced by the industry.
The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) made a point about the high levels of employment in some parts of the country—not in all, but in some—that make it genuinely difficult to fulfil the needs of the farming sector. I represent a constituency with farming in the western aspects and unemployment in my constituency is 1.9%. That is perhaps unusual for a Labour constituency, but there is a real challenge for rural areas to fulfil employment needs and it is not always easy for people living in urban areas to travel to the countryside and do that kind of work.
The fact has to be faced that British workers are keen on permanent work and the supply of British workers to work on the land is not what it was. I grew up in an area where every morning women would pile into the Land Rover at the end of the street and go off to work on the land. That no longer happens. My own mother worked on the land in the horticulture sector, on and off over the years when she needed the money. The transitional nature of that work is something that the British workforce nowadays finds difficult to accept and we have to tackle that reality. I know that the National Farmers Union has some ideas on how to tackle that obstacle.
We are where we are and we cannot allow the industry to be damaged by a refusal to face the fact that we need to find labour over the next few years. The impact of Brexit is already being felt by the sector when it comes to labour supply, so I absolutely support the case made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent.
The Government have a responsibility seriously to consider the need for a seasonal labour supply scheme for the agricultural sector and to place the need for such a scheme in the context of an overall plan for Brexit. I do not think that we can run away from that argument this morning; it is really important. Agriculture wants certainty from the Government on labour supply over not just the next one or two years but in the medium term; the sector needs certainty on what Brexit is going to look like. It is not just the agricultural sector of course—the financial services sector, manufacturing and every part of our economy need that certainty—but we have to acknowledge that agriculture is very dependent on the European Union for much of its funding and for much of its supply of labour, so it is particularly vulnerable to how the Government respond to Brexit and handle the negotiations for Brexit with Brussels.
Are we going to have a Canada-type deal? Are we going to have Canada-plus? Are we going to have a deal along the lines enjoyed by Norway or Switzerland, or are we going to stay in the single market? The Government need to start answering those questions. Are we going to conclude the negotiations in the two years, once article 50 has been triggered, or are we going to need a transitional deal?
It is not just agriculture that needs certainty. The Country Land and Business Association points out that rural tourism is also very dependent on seasonal labour:
“Tourism Alliance data notes that one in four workers within the tourism sector are non-UK nationals. As such, the decision to leave the EU and the potential to limit the availability of a non-UK workforce will undoubtedly be of significant concern to these businesses.”
The evidence shows that urban tourism can stay open to some extent through the winter, perhaps with more limited opening, but rural tourism tends to close its doors. There is a real challenge here for the Government. We really need some certainty from the Government on what their plan for Brexit is going to look like.
Very good points have been made on the case and need for investment in the farming sector and for security in relation to labour supply if we are to give the agricultural sector—farmers—the confidence to invest. I agree strongly with those points. Certainty is everything in business—agriculture is no different from any other part of the economy in that respect—but the point can be made more strategically. If farmers and other rural businesses are to have the confidence to invest for the long term and to innovate and invest in the technology that enables them to become more profitable in the long term, they need not only the scheme under discussion this morning but a clear sense of the strategic direction being pursued by the Government on Brexit. I hope that the Minister will address that point; farmers up and down the country really want to know where Britain is going on Brexit. It is of huge importance to them and to the farming sector in my constituency and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate.
I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution that seasonal workers make to our rural economy. They are critical to UK agriculture plc. It is worth noting that a small number of seasonal workers are British citizens who go to work in the fields in the summer and autumn months to increase their pay packets, but the vast majority are non-UK nationals. I will focus my contribution on them, because they play a very large part in the north Cornwall workforce during the summer months.
We are facing a seasonal worker shortage at a time when UK food production may need to increase to meet the country’s needs. I believe that implementing a new seasonal workers permit scheme for non-UK workers would give farming businesses certainty at a time when they need it. Without such a scheme, the UK could be at a significant disadvantage, as many other developed countries around the world have a seasonal workforce. At this crucial time when we are withdrawing from the European Union, we need to give the agricultural sector certainty about future workforce planning. Farmers and other rural businesses need assurances about the labour market and about how any future schemes will operate, so they are confident that they will have that role in the long term as the UK removes itself from the European Union.
It is also worth looking at an accommodation strategy to house seasonal workers in the summer months. A lot of farm-based businesses in north Cornwall have raised the problem of accommodation with me. Having such a policy would mean that people coming to Britain to work knew they had somewhere to stay before they agreed to come. A seasonal scheme would also benefit other rural and coastal businesses, which face similar increases in trade throughout the summer months. Tourism Alliance data show that one in four workers in the tourism sector, in which north Cornwall plays a huge part during the summer months, are non-UK nationals. A dedicated strategy to meet increasing pressures during the year for farmers and the tourism sector would be welcome.
Prior to 2014, there was a quota-based seasonal workers system that enabled farmers to recruit temporarily from overseas. It took a pragmatic approach to labour, and it was controlled through the UK Border Agency and managed by contracted operators. I ask the Minister to consider learning from what worked back then and to implement a strategy to check workers in and out. It should be overseen by the Home Office and managed by licensed operators, and it should not just support EU citizens but be open to the wider world. I ask the Minister to consider an accommodation strategy to cope with temporary population changes, and a 12-month permit in conjunction with other industries, such as food processing or tourism, that would enable us to offer a full year’s work to committed non-UK workers.
This debate has been a great opportunity to put the farming case for seasonal permits. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
As always, it is a pleasure to speak in this Chamber. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for bringing forward this issue and for comprehensively setting the scene for us all to try to follow. My contribution will obviously be from a Northern Ireland perspective. My plea, like the hon. Lady’s, is for us to help our seasonal workers.
I hail from Strangford, and my constituency has some of the finest agricultural land in the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I represent the home of the trademarked Comber spud, which is a treat to any palate across the United Kingdom. Nobody who has had a Comber spud will ever want any other kind of spud—I say that with great respect to Members who will probably make a plea for their own areas.
The land in Strangford is so fertile that we can sometimes have three harvests in a year, as opposed to the two that farmers in other areas of the Province have. We have some of the lowest levels of rainfall—I hope I do not tempt providence by saying that, but that is what the stats say and they have been accumulated over a number of years. That is wonderful news for our farmers, who struggle to make ends meet and put food on all our tables. However, as my mother used to say to me when disciplining me for misbehaving as a young boy, “You reap what you sow.” That is a solid principle. The harvest must come in or it is all for naught. If farmers do not have the labour to bring in the harvest, the result is clear: a waste of food and money. That is unconscionable.
Is not the point also that the industry is constantly pushing the boundaries of innovation and increasing productivity, thereby fulfilling what the Government are asking it to do by improving production and productivity? If we are not careful, we will constrain the one thing it really needs, which is a decent seasonal workforce.
I thank the hon. Lady for those very wise words. I am sure the Minister is listening intently. I fully endorse what she said, and I am sure others do too. Governments have encouraged the agricultural sector to grow, and with that growth has come the complications for seasonal workers, which we are debating today. I hope that point is taken on board.
When there was a labour shortage in 2008, horticultural businesses lost an average of £140,000 as crops were left unpicked in the fields and retailers were left to try to fill their shelves with imported produce. We are not too old to remember 2008 and the peculiar difficulties that farmers and retailers faced. A shortage of labour puts at risk horticultural businesses, which contribute £3 billion to the UK economy and employ about 37,000 people on a permanent basis. We must address that issue, because we are possibly facing the same scenario again. I know that from my constituency, and I am sure the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent and other hon. Members who have spoken and will speak later will endorse that view.
The briefing outlines the situation that we are currently in. I declare an interest: I am a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, the sister organisation of the NFU, of which I am also a member. The NFU 2015 end-of-season labour survey has shown for the first time since the seasonal agriculture workers scheme closed that growers are starting to struggle to source an adequate supply of seasonal workers to meet their needs. Some 29% of respondents stated that they experienced problems in 2015, and 66% said that they predict that the situation will worsen by 2018. That cannot be allowed to happen. This debate is an opportunity to address that problem at an early stage, and I hope the Minister and the Government will do so.
Those data were collected pre-referendum, with full freedom of movement within the European Union. Since the referendum, labour providers have reported a marked drop-off in interest from EU workers in seasonal work. That was demonstrated by the results of the NFU labour providers survey, which shows that between July and September 2016, 47% of labour providers said they were unable to meet the demands of the sectors they were supplying. That is almost half; it is a colossal figure. That compares with the 100% of labour providers who said they were able to recruit sufficient numbers of workers during January, February and March this year.
That is not good news for our farmers, for our constituents or for us in this place. Many crops produced in the United Kingdom are seasonal, which creates a structural problem that requires the annual recruitment of sufficient seasonal workers. Those jobs are fluid and flexible, but they do not provide the stable, permanent wage that people need. I say this gently: farmers do not want to undercut wages by bringing people in to do the work; the fact is that they cannot get enough labour to do the work at the right time.
I was taken by the figures that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent mentioned—I think she referred to 1,000 workers for one section of land. Think about that for a second. That is 1,000 workers who have to be housed and looked after. That is a colossal figure, and it is for just one place, not the whole of the United Kingdom. That puts where we are into perspective.
In my constituency, we have Willowbrook and Mash Direct, which are local agri-food producers. I know how hard they work to encourage local people—those at home—to work for them, but the reality is that a large portion of their workforce is not from Northern Ireland. In one of those factories the figure is 40%, and in the other it is 60%. We need seasonal workers in Strangford, across Northern Ireland and throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Those companies could not operate without a seasonal workforce, and I know they are not alone. The NFU said that the industry currently uses about 80,000 seasonal workers, and that figure is expected to rise to 95,000 by 2021. The projected figures show that we need more seasonal workers; we must not decrease the number we already have. A flexible workforce is needed across food and farming—an industry worth £108 billion to the nation’s economy. The input of agri-food, therefore, makes a massive contribution to the economy, as anyone who represents an agri-food sector or constituency knows—those who do not probably know from the facts and figures.
Workers from across the skills spectrum are needed throughout the industry—for example, in livestock and poultry businesses to process and pack meat. Cereal farmers need workers to weed crops and drive complex machinery. Farming is not as simple as it was years ago. There is more complexity to it today, and bureaucracy as well—there is a certain level of regulation to meet to move products throughout the world. Dairy farmers need workers with high levels of animal husbandry skills. I am old enough to remember the small milking ventures in my constituency, because I had many friends in farming. The systems were easy to work with then, but with all the complexity and technology today, people need a degree to work in a milking parlour.
The UK is not alone in the need to outsource help; Canada, the US and other countries do the same. My own son applied to go to Australia for a year on a work permit visa to see the country while working on different farms—he fell in with a girl, which of course put an end to all that, but that happens sometimes in this world, so he did not take up the opportunity in Australia. That scheme appeals to many young people wishing to take a gap year, and the Australian Government have made it easy for young people to do it, at great benefit to farmers and their economy. It is an opportunity to see other parts of the world, and to learn a wee bit more about farming and how people do things there.
The scenario is clear. We once had an extremely successful quota-based scheme for seasonal agricultural workers, which enabled farmers to recruit temporary overseas workers to carry out crop growing, harvesting, on-farm processing and packing. I have been informed that it was robust and effective, controlled by the UK Border Agency and managed by contracted operators. It has provided a pool of labour for the horticulture industry for the past 60 years. Exceptionally high rates of return to home countries meant that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was never an immigration issue.
We must bring something similar into play as a matter of urgency, and that is why the debate today is so relevant to our times. The NFU has called on the Government in 2017 to trial a substantial fixed-term work permit scheme for agriculture and horticulture targeted at non-EU workers. That is what the farmers in my constituency and I are calling for in today’s debate. This country knows how to carry out such a scheme, because we have had one before. We only need to bring it back and update what is necessary.
The NFU has said that a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme could include “all of the positives” of the previous SAWS arrangements, but with “new criteria” that could include oversight by the Home Office—UK Visas and Immigration; I hope the Minister will respond to this point—management by licenced operators, and checks on arrival and departure for scheme workers. The scheme could be open to workers from anywhere in the world, have independently accredited scheme standards and include restrictions on the length of the placement period.
I ask the Minister gently but firmly to indicate how willing the Government are to take into account where we are, and to address the needs before we have to address a crisis. We should go from this debate in Westminster Hall and proactively put in the time and effort needed to bring a pilot scheme into play by 2017. That is what we are all asking for, and I look to the Minister for leadership. We need help, our constituents need help, and we need to make progress, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said, to ensure that our agriculture sector can grow even more, producing more jobs, and so that great product, the Comber spud, can continue to be available for palates and plates throughout the United Kingdom and further afield.
I am delighted to be following so many illustrious hon. Members and, in particular, to be speaking in a debate called by my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who has done an awful lot in the 18 months that we have been in this place to represent the farming and agricultural communities that overlap our areas so much.
It is a huge privilege to be at this important debate, because the question it asks is fundamental and, in many ways, will shape British agriculture not only for the next season, or even the next two or three seasons, but for the next generation. The danger, however, is that we could see British agriculture going from being an industrial heart of innovation and technological improvement, and from providing taste explosions such as those from the strawberries my hon. Friend was describing, to a desert—perhaps simply a commuter belt of dormitory villages.
The question is therefore fundamental to what we want our countryside to be in the next 20 or 30 years. I am pleased that my hon. Friend spoke with such passion and eloquence, and that so many voices from around the United Kingdom—I am sure we will hear from Scotland shortly—are speaking out, because it is not simply a matter for the garden of England, which we all know is the most beautiful part of the kingdom, and it is not simply a matter for soft fruit farmers; it is a matter, as everyone has mentioned in different ways today, of migrant labour in the different areas.
We must get the system right, because if we do, we will have migrant labourers who are able to come, perhaps for a period of a few weeks or months, depending on whether they are here for tourism, fruit picking or other areas of the agricultural industry, and then to go. They will take their revenue and go home, continue their education, rejoin their families, or whatever it might be. If we get it wrong, we will have a real problem, because either we will have to close down large swathes of British agriculture, and perhaps swathes of tourism, or we will have done something that we did not intend, which is to create permanent migrants. The alternative to temporary migration when the economy is such a strong draw, as our growing economy is after six years of tough decisions, is that migration becomes permanent.
Communities might be complaining about a few thousand fruit pickers every now and again, but the pressure from people coming with their kids and families will be quite different. We should recognise that we are talking about a fundamental question for the United Kingdom industry. If we are to get this right, it must be a temporary migration scheme open to many other industries, not just agriculture. Such a scheme would open up an enormous opportunity for the UK to grow flexibly and create space for innovation.
One of the big problems for companies is that hiring workers is great, but firing them is not. No one wants to lay people off, in particular as companies innovate and come up with new ideas and new technologies, and as the agricultural sector revolutionises how we grow food in this country—as it has done, let us not forget, for the past 300 years, because we invented so many of the great reforms on land that allowed people to leave the soil and go to the cities, which led to the urban and economic regeneration of the United Kingdom that enabled us to become the powerhouse of the world. Those innovations are carrying on, but if we force people to have workers on permanent contracts, innovation will be discouraged, because the economic and emotional cost of moving people on and letting them go creates a drag. For an innovative sector such as agriculture, what we want and really need is temporary workers. They fill the seasonal hole and they allow innovation.
We can get this right, because here in the UK we are combining so many wonderful things. I joked a little about the garden of England perhaps becoming a desert, but the truth is that it is not one. It is already a centre of innovation, and what people often forget—I know that the Minister will not, because he has looked into this carefully—is that agriculture and technology work incredibly closely together.
Were the Minister to visit Kent, he would be very welcome at East Malling research centre, which is at the forefront of agricultural innovation. Not only are the people there developing new forms of apples and strawberries—some even better than the ones grown in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent, however extraordinary that might seem—but they are coming up with innovative ways of using water, so that food can grow in areas where water is very much at a premium, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa. They are also looking at the robotics that my hon. Friend referred to. Those areas are really challenging, but because we are blessed in Kent, we get the two of them working side by side and developing together, and that innovation spreads to the rest of the world.
I am reluctant to interrupt my hon. Friend’s fabulous speech, which we are all enjoying, but as a fruit farmer’s daughter and a fruit farmer myself, I feel it is imperative to ask whether he agrees that these agricultural workers are a fairly unique breed. They must be both skilled technologically and strong physically. The type of work we ask them to do is unusual, skilled and often back-breaking. As such, they are a group of people who need to be able to move around—perhaps even more than other migrant workforces.
I completely agree. My hon. Friend knows very well that we share a passion for the British apple. As my right hon. and hon. Friends here will know, it is now russet season. May I strongly encourage those who have not had a Kentish Russet this season to do so? They are truly the champagne of apples—well, the English champagne of apples. They are the most fantastic product.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said, we are talking about creating a system—I know the Minister is listening carefully and following the theme of this debate—that allows innovation in the agricultural sector to increase. As a boy in Kent, I did quite a lot of fruit picking, and I know that many other people did that too. My picking was not quite of the standard that my dear friend Marion Regan would require, as I was not packing for Wimbledon, which is where her strawberries go. We used to go as kids to a pick-your-own farm. Of course, we ate half the stuff before it got into the punnet.
Getting the system right would not mean some return to the halcyon days—which have not existed for a long time—of east-end Londoners going hop picking in the summer, because those east-end Londoners, thank God, now have very good jobs and spend their holidays all around the world. I am afraid that the idea that hop picking in Kent is an alternative to Ibiza is simply not credible for large swathes of people. Perhaps it is for some.
The change that we as a nation voted for on 23 June means that we have to reinvent ourselves and remember some old skills. Some of those skills are to do with imagination and creativity, which was the extraordinary thing about the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Although other OECD countries copied the scheme, it was innovative when it came in. Indeed, extraordinarily, it almost—I do mean almost—still exists. It was last operated in 2013, which is only a few years ago. One of the many organisations that operated it, the Harvesting Opportunities Permit Scheme, or HOPS, stopped only then, and it still runs a recruitment agency for agricultural workers, so it could easily be brought back. We are not talking about a complete redesign; we are talking about switching back to a scheme that worked extremely well until only recently.
None of that will compensate for the many workers deciding not to come because they will take a 10% or 15% pay cut if they are paid in pounds but want to take their money back to parts of the world where they spend in euros, so a new scheme will not be a direct replacement. It will not simply turn on the tap immediately. We must recognise that there are still challenges for farmers, not just in Kent but around the country, but such a scheme will go some way to offering opportunities. If we look at the issue seriously, as I know the Minister will, we will create the flexible scheme that Britain needs, that farming needs and that many of our friends in Europe need.
We are of course about to enter—in some ways, we already have—the toughest negotiations the world has ever seen, on hundreds of lines of Government business, industry, migration and any number of other questions. Everything is to play for. As we started those negotiations, we must demonstrate our good will towards our European neighbours. Whatever people may think about the European Union, we are all friends with our European neighbours, and we must show them that we are open. We must show them again that we are believers in free trade. We created the rule of law and the system of international agreement—that system was created largely in the Chamber not far from here. If we remind them that openness is something that we feel we still share, and that we are not just willing but actually very happy for their young men and women to come and do a significantly better job than I ever did in Kent’s strawberry fields and take money home to enrich their own communities, that will go a little way—perhaps not far, but certainly a little way—to showing our good will to our European friends in particular, but also to people around the world. That would be an important gesture, not just for us but for them.
May I briefly sum up and ask the Minister a few questions, which I know he will be delighted to answer? Will he consider introducing a pilot scheme as soon as possible? I mentioned HOPS, which I am sure would be delighted to assist, should the Home Office be willing to engage with it. I am sure that he will not need to give reasons why he will not, so I shall skip over any explanation he might otherwise have given. Will he please collect data from that pilot scheme and share them with Members and groups such as the National Farmers Union, which has done a lot of work on this issue, and the Country Land and Business Association, which likewise has devoted an awful lot of energy to supporting not only the agricultural sector but all industry in rural areas? That would allow us to evaluate and, yes, to adjust. We do not pretend for a moment that the first scheme that will roll out will be perfect. It will not be, but we would be happy to work with him on that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as the industry has been so proactive in asking us to have those discussions, it behoves the Government to involve the industry—the NFU, the CLA and so on—in developing the scheme that is most appropriate to service the issues that have come to light during this debate?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely essential point. Not only does it behove the Government to consult the industry widely because of all the efforts it has made, but we simply will not get a very good answer unless we do that, because the experts are the people who are doing the work, not the ones who are legislating on it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be only too willing to meet members of the NFU and the CLA. I remember his willingness to meet all manner of groups in his former occupation as aviation Minister, when he listened carefully to the people of west Kent and came up with absolutely the right answer. We will skip over that.
My last point is this. We have offered evidence that businesses will not survive if they rely solely on UK workers—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent made extremely well. The farmers in my community need help now. I know that the Government, my hon. Friend the Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural affairs are listening. I urge the Minister to act with a little alacrity, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said, the season for strawberries is not in June; it is in March.
I am pleased to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on introducing the debate. I am a member of her newly formed all-party parliamentary group, and I look forward to doing much important work in this area.
I represent a constituency that sits in the middle of the Scottish soft fruit and potato areas, and I will concentrate today on soft fruit growers’ particular problems with agricultural employment. When I was growing up, I picked strawberries, raspberries and indeed potatoes. Everyone did in those days, but the world has moved on and—dare I say it—the industry is much more professional. Part of the reason for that is the spread of cultivation methods, with different berries now grown—blueberries are an important crop in my area—changes in the industry and the increasing demands of the major supermarkets.
Recent trends show increasing use of polytunnels as against open-field production for growing soft fruit. Indeed the season can now last for up to nine months of the year. This is a vital part of the Scottish economy, particularly for areas such as Angus. The soft fruit sector alone contributed many millions of pounds to the Scottish economy in 2015. The total for the horticultural industry in the UK, as has been said, is over £3.8 billion.
Most of the growers in my area rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on migrant labour. Many previously utilised the SAWS scheme, but since its abandonment they have relied on labour from other EU nations. With the prospect of leaving the EU, the future of those people is uncertain and it would be an utter disaster if we got to the positon where they too had to leave the EU, because that would lead to the complete collapse of many of those industries. The NFU has called for an assurance for EU workers already in a position to have the right of residency in the UK, which is a call I heartily support. I know the Minister will give the usual response, but Ministers really have to grapple with that. I appreciate that there are difficulties with our European neighbours, but that is important to the industries and, if it is not dealt with, we face real disaster. Many people have settled in our communities and become an important part of them. It is ridiculous that we cannot assure them that they remain welcome here.
The original SAWS scheme relied principally on young workers, often students. It is a huge pity that the issue of young people coming to work in the UK agricultural sector became tangled up with more general immigration. It is worth noting in passing that it is a two-way street. When I was at university I remember many people went to France to pick grapes, for example. Many of our young people also benefited from those opportunities.
I will make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. The vast majority of those who came to work in agriculture were here specifically for a short period and always intended to return to their home nation at the end of their visa period. Indeed, as the NFU points out, there was a 98% return rate. Unfortunately, as in many other areas, there is often a serious collision between perception and reality.
Under the previous scheme, some 21,250 visas were issued in its last year of operation for workers to come to the UK for periods of between five weeks and six months. In the last year of the scheme, I was told by Angus Growers, a producers’ group that covers Angus and the surrounding areas, of about 2,000 people whom it employed at the peak of the season the majority came through the SAWS scheme. It now employs many people from other EU nations.
It is worth pointing out the benefits to the UK of young people coming here. They not only earn money that they can take back to their home nation but learn English and gain a good impression of our country from the people they meet. That is an exercise in soft power and, if we end up outside the EU, we will have to look seriously at our relations with other parts of Europe and the world.
According to “Rural Scotland in Focus 2016”, launched this week by the Scottish Government, three quarters of Scotland’s migrant farm work is undertaken in Angus and Perth and Kinross, with the vast majority in the horticultural sector. Those areas—my area and adjoining areas—which are the heart of the Scottish fruit sector, rely on those workers. They should not be seen just as a form of cheap labour. Many companies have tried to recruit local workers and, as has been said by Members who are no longer in their place, one of the problems is that there are not sufficient local unemployed people to take up such posts.
A Conservative economic success.
It is the Scottish Government’s success—the hon. Gentleman is getting it wrong. There are many more migrant workers employed in my area than there are unemployed people, and not all of those who are unemployed are capable of the labour required, because picking raspberries, strawberries and potatoes is not easy labour—I speak from experience a long time ago. Indeed, my local authority, in conjunction with growers, set up a berry scheme with the aim of providing opportunities for the long-term unemployed that had some success but not enough to take the place of those coming for work. A seasonal workers scheme is therefore necessary.
If we are unable to get sufficient seasonal workers to come, that would have a devastating effect on the local industry. I stress that horticulture provides jobs not just in picking but in the whole infrastructure behind that, from administration, processing and packing to transporting the fruit which, by its nature, has to be done quickly and efficiently. That provides many full-time jobs for local people as well as for seasonal migrant labour.
As has been said, there are real concerns that fruit and vegetables could remain unharvested if growers cannot obtain sufficient labour. The growers and agricultural industry in general are aware of the issues that surround the use of migrant labour, but they rightly point out, as I said, that many of them are students who come to this country, and there are genuine benefits to the UK from their coming and going back.
One issue that has not been touched on is what happens if the labour is not here? Some larger growers have already invested in farms in eastern Europe and are likely to invest more there. There has been talk of the great British strawberry, but unless we tackle this issue our export markets may disappear as that becomes the great Polish strawberry or the great Romanian strawberry. It is in our interests.
The National Farmers Union, with the support of horticulture and fruit growers, has come up with proposals for a renewed SAWS scheme, which it hopes would match its demands and tackle concerns about the use of migrant labour. In a rare degree of unanimity in the Chamber, I think we are all supportive of that, and perhaps of a trial, but, if the Minister is to go down the road of a trial, may we have one that takes in all parts of the United Kingdom, unlike for the post-study work visa, which, despite Scottish concerns, was for only a few English universities?
I make no bones about the fact that I firmly believe all existing EU workers should have the right to remain, but the NFU proposal is a sensible and genuine attempt to come up with a scheme that would meet Government objectives and allow this valuable industry to have the labour it requires. I urge the Minister, along with everyone else in the Chamber, to give that serious consideration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on her passionate defence of her position. We would not want the pricing model of the British strawberry to go the same way as Toblerone or Marmite—or, worse still, for it to be outsourced entirely. The discussion has highlighted the often overlooked yet crucial role of economic migrants in the rural economy and shown that we need carefully managed migration policies if we are to ensure that we will not be worse off as we voyage into these uncharted post-Brexit waters.
Whatever side of the argument we are on in that debate, we must all agree that a thriving agricultural sector is vital to the strength of our rural economy. The figures I have say that 302,000 people work in agriculture and that the total income from farming, although it is declining, was in excess of £3.75 billion in 2015. We have heard slightly different figures in the debate, but agriculture is the lifeblood of hundreds of communities up and down the country. Within that, the horticultural sector is an important plank of British agriculture. It contributes £3 billion to the UK economy. However, the nature of the life cycle of crops and fruits means that inevitably it relies on seasonal workers. Figures in the Financial Times yesterday put the seasonal workforce at 80,000, 98% of whom are from the EU.
I certainly do not want those jobs to disappear. It is of course right that British people should be encouraged to work in agriculture, but realistically the seasonal nature of much of the work means that it will be difficult to achieve that in the short term. As we have heard, there are gaps that need to be plugged. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) eloquently dealt with the arguments of Migration Watch, and the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent described the difficulties with mechanical fruit picking. How do we resolve all that?
Obviously, agricultural workers, whether from the EU or of any other origin, should be allowed on UK farms seasonally, or permanently, and the Government need to work out a system that would guarantee a stable and predictable flow of farm workers. Most developed countries have some sort of temporary migration programme; it is not unusual. I believe that they even have one in Poland, in which they take workers from Moldova and Ukraine. It is not a bizarre idea; we have had it for a long time in this country. Economists value such systems and say that there is a triple benefit—I will not say triple lock; that is a bit controversial at the moment. There is a benefit to the host state, because the labour gaps are plugged; the system is good for the state that the migrants come from, because it does not engender the brain drain that we hear of.
As the shadow Minister knows, there has been a terrible increase in hate crime since the referendum, 85% of which is race-related. Does she agree that that disgraceful behaviour not only threatens our identity and values but causes many overseas workers to reconsider whether to choose this country for work?
The hon. Lady anticipates a later part of my speech. I was going to refer to yesterday’s Financial Times, which reported that a chap called John Hardman, of HOPS Labour Solutions of Kenilworth, 20% of whose recruitment is for agriculture jobs—I think it is an employment agency—said:
“Post-Brexit, Romanians and Bulgarians have had the view that Britain is a xenophobic, anti-European place and that they can go to Germany, Holland and Belgium, with better conditions and earn better wages, since the devaluation of the pound has reduced their net income by 15-20 per cent.”
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent and other hon. Members alluded to such conditions. We do not want that to happen; it is a good point.
The hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir) pointed out that for the migrants themselves there are many benefits, including those to do with language. Such schemes are seen as good, and we had one from 1948 to 2013. Originally, the point of it was the opportunity for cultural exchange, with young people in war-torn Europe gaining the opportunity to contribute to the reconstruction of its economies—including Britain’s—by offering seasonal labour. In 2009, 21,250 agricultural workers were given short-term permits under the scheme. All of those were from Bulgaria and Romania, as Britain had started to use the scheme to ensure that citizens from countries newly admitted to the European economic area could contribute to filling those identified labour shortages. Along the way there have been adaptations; under the Labour Government in 2005 the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which we established to give trade unions an effective voice in the prevention of exploitation of tied labour, was incorporated.
There has been a large degree of consensus in the debate that the scheme was a sensible, managed and welcoming migration policy, but in 2013 the Government decided to scrap it—quite controversially. Conservative MPs for Kent and Essex constituencies voiced concerns at the time. Fast forwarding, yesterday’s Financial Times contains some alarming things. The NFU, which many hon. Members have mentioned, is publishing a new survey later in the week. The article reports its worries that
“the supply of pickers for late-season crops such as potatoes and brassicas—cabbages, cauliflowers and turnips—was only enough to meet 67 per cent of the industry’s needs.”
There is a shortfall there. The article also states:
“In a letter to Robert Goodwill, the immigration minister, dated November 10 and seen by the FT…the NFU’s deputy president, warned: ‘There is a clear emerging labour crisis in the industry’ and ‘a very real risk that British fruit and vegetables will be left to rot unpicked in British fields in 2017’.”
We do not want to get to that point, obviously.
To some extent there were warnings in 2013. The British Growers Association said that scrapping the scheme would have
“a significant and damaging impact on investment and production decisions affecting the UK with immediate effect”.
The NFU, again, also gave a warning at that time. Even the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee predicted:
“In the medium- and longer-term, farmers are likely to experience increasing difficulties in sourcing the required level of seasonal labour from the EU (including the UK) labour market.”
I was speaking in a debate in this same 9.30 slot a week ago; I am having an attack of déjà vu. It was a debate on the effect of Brexit on higher education. Some of the questions are enduring ones about, short term, allowing people in and out. These are not migratory flows that would have a long-term impact. There has been an unusual level of consensus in the debate; I do not think that anyone has argued against bringing the scheme back temporarily.
Researchers from the University of Sussex have found that the working conditions of agricultural workers have not changed in any substantial way since the closure of the scheme. As a result, attracting sufficient British workers to the task is becoming increasingly challenging. Those claims are worrying and, given the post-Brexit climate that we are heading into, they need to be properly addressed and considered. The Government need to work with employers and unions to see what impact the scrapping of the scheme has had on jobs, wages and working conditions.
The NFU is calling for the reintroduction of a migration scheme for agricultural workers to be piloted, with a particular focus on students, as the hon. Member for Angus mentioned. Perhaps the Minister could at least commit to offering a proper, comprehensive assessment of the impact of scrapping the policy. Has there been an increase in labour productivity in the sector that will feed through to higher wages? Are jobs disappearing in agricultural firms? As those firms will be unable to produce goods without access to labour, it would be good to have a level-headed assessment.
The Government cannot say that they were not warned. Anyone who hopes that leaving the single market will allow the Government to liberalise migration policy in the agricultural sector will be as disappointed as the curry chefs who were told by the International Development Secretary that, if we voted to leave—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am in the last minute of my speech, and I should prefer to wind it up: my apologies.
The Government aim to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands whatever the economic costs, and insist on the mantra “Brexit means Brexit”, even though we do not know exactly what that means. They include student numbers in the calculations, despite the overwhelming evidence that the public do not want that. They seem to have boxed themselves into a corner, because they will not be able to liberalise immigration in a sector when the economic case and rationale are clear.
I know the Minister from his previous incarnation. He is a very reasonable chap. I had a win for my constituents because of his actions; so I hope he can do the same thing today. We have seen that dogmatic quotas and targets can result in counter-productive policies. I hope that he will listen to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent about having just a temporary trial scheme next year and about seasonal agriculture workers being at the forefront of the negotiations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for initiating this important and informative debate, and I congratulate her on her elevation to the chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farming. She presented her case with her customary eloquence and passion, and I am grateful to her and to all hon. Members who have participated. I assure all hon. Members that I will reflect very carefully on the points that have been raised.
When I was appointed as the Minister for Immigration, I was interviewed by the Home Office staff magazine. One of the questions they asked me was, “If you weren’t a politician, what would you be?” I note in passing, and with relief, that they asked the same question of all of my ministerial colleagues at the Home Office, rather than it being a question solely for myself. I replied, “I’m a farmer, first and foremost. Politics has always been the other thing I do. My family have been on the same farm in north Yorkshire since 1850.” Indeed, I have carried out many of the same jobs as the hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir); I suspect my father should have been arrested for using child labour, given the age at which I began doing those tasks.
It is important that we consider the issues before us today. I understand the position of the farming community and, every bit as importantly, I absolutely appreciate the importance of food and farming industries as a crucial component of the UK economy and of the fabric of rural Britain. I will just put the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) right on one point before I move on: seasonal workers do not contribute to net migration figures; someone has to be here for more than a year to count towards those. Indeed, the reason the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was closed was not because it was unsuccessful, but because the Government were required under EU law to lift the restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, who then had unrestricted access to the labour market.
The issue of how we meet temporary labour needs in the agriculture sector is a long-standing one. In the past, the immigration system made provision for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, under which overseas workers were admitted to for up to six months to undertake crop harvesting. Those arrangements worked very well indeed. The reason why the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was phased out was because the sector had access to an expanded pool of labour, following successive accessions of eastern European countries to the European Union.
As part of our commitment to reduce net migration, the Government’s consistent position has been not to introduce new migration schemes for non-EU nationals to meet labour needs at lower skill levels. The previous seasonal agricultural workers scheme was phased out on the recommendation of the Migration Advisory Committee at the point at which restrictions on the employment of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals were lifted. While the UK remains a member of the EU, EU nationals continue to enjoy the right of freedom of movement in accordance with the UK’s treaty obligations, and employers in the food and farming sector can continue to recruit EU workers to meet seasonal labour needs.
It is not the Government’s policy to admit non-EU nationals to meet labour needs at lower skill levels. However, I appreciate the concerns that have been raised about whether the present situation is sustainable. I met Minette Batters, the deputy president of the National Farmers Union, and Ali Capper, who is also from the NFU, at the beginning of the month. They raised that very point with me, and I have undertaken to reflect on it carefully. Indeed, at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, I met the president of the NFU, Meurig Raymond, who also raised that very point.
I know there are concerns that the UK’s impending exit from the EU, or even the fall in the value of sterling, might lead to an immediate shortage of labour as EU workers go home, although the data do not support that so far. The most recent labour market statistics were published by the independent Office for National Statistics earlier this month. They cover the period up to September 2016—after the referendum—and show that the number of EU citizens in the UK labour force was higher in the quarter to September 2016 than it had been a year earlier.
Not only that, but the number of workers from the eight countries of eastern and central Europe that joined the EU in 2004, and from Bulgaria and Romania—the countries most commonly associated with low-skilled labour—are also up year on year. To be precise, there were 129,000 more workers from those countries in the UK in the third quarter of 2016 compared with a year earlier. That does not suggest that there is a major exodus from the United Kingdom although, as I have said, I will continue to monitor the situation carefully.
The Government wish to ensure that any decisions we take on the short-term need for seasonal migration schemes do not pre-empt future decisions about how the immigration system will work post-Brexit. As I am sure hon. Members will understand, there are constraints on what I can say about the future arrangements for EU citizens who want to work in the United Kingdom; the way in which we will control migration post-Brexit is yet to be determined. One of the opportunities of Brexit is that we will be able to control both the numbers of migrants from within the EU and the activities that they undertake when they are here.
Can I read from the Minister’s comments that the Government’s plan, if they are to control and restrict freedom of movement, is to leave the single market?
I think that question goes above my pay grade. The Leader of the Opposition will have an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister about that at Prime Minister’s Question Time—presumably once he has finished paying tribute to Fidel Castro.
What I can say is that, in framing those future arrangements, the Government will give careful consideration to the needs of the agricultural sector and, of course, every other part of the UK economy. The Government have made it clear that we will work with sectors of the economy to ensure that the potential impacts of Brexit are understood and taken into account when developing our approach. However, we will also be mindful that, in voting for the UK’s departure from the EU, the British people sent a clear message that gaining more control over the number of people who come here from Europe must be a priority in our negotiations.
There is no doubt that there is a debate to be had about whether workers admitted to the UK to undertake seasonal work on a temporary basis are an immigration issue. For example, they may not, as I have said, count towards the official net immigration statistics produced by the ONS if their stay is less than 12 months. However, they certainly have an impact on the communities where they are located, and they do use public services.
A wider issue is the balance to be struck between short-term fixes and the longer-term sustainability of the sector. The horticultural sector has clearly acquired a profound dependence on migrant labour. A Gangmasters Licensing Authority survey following the closure of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme found that, of the 234 farms that responded, only eight had employed any UK nationals at all to undertake seasonal work. Whether we arrived in that position because UK workers have ceased to be available to growers, or because migrant workers have become more readily available to them—or both—may be an academic point now. However, it is still sensible to ask whether the Government should act to perpetuate that dependence in future.
I will deal briefly with a couple of points raised during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent asked about those EU citizens who have already settled here. The Prime Minister has made it clear that she wishes to protect the status of people already here. Indeed, the only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if British citizens’ rights in EU member states were not protected in return.
Points have been made about the reaction following Brexit and potential xenophobia. I am meeting the Romanian ambassador later today and I will make the point that this country still welcomes people to come and work here. Indeed, as long as we remain a member of the European Union, those people are free and welcome to come here and participate in our vibrant, thriving economy.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) made a point about accommodating seasonal workers. I agree that it is important that we look at accommodation, not only because we need to ensure the welfare of the migrants, but because the lack of rural accommodation is a barrier to the recruitment of UK workers. The working group on seasonal workers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to look at how increasing the availability of accommodation can be incentivised. Employers can offer some accommodation costs against the national minimum wage. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) said that non-EEA seasonal workers coming here temporarily do not impact on the migration figures. I mention in passing that I have two Egremont Russet trees in my orchard and I can attest to the quality of their fruit.
This has been an excellent debate, and I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent. I will allow her a few moments to sum up before the end of the debate.
I thank the Minister for the time and care he has taken and for his comments. I particularly thank all hon. Members who have contributed. It has felt like a pretty lively debate. We have had strawberry wars about who produces the best strawberries. We have debated which the best apples are—the Russet performed very strongly; it is the English sparkling wine of apples, perhaps. We have also heard Kent compared to Ibiza. There has been a lot of emotion in the room as well.
To be serious, we have talked about how times have changed. Many of us have at some time picked fruit at a young age—who knows who was the youngest—and done our bit in the past. However, people do not work on the land any more, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, so we need a reliable supply of seasonal workers for our farms. I urge the Minister to keep looking at this, and to look not only at the overall figures for EU migrants but specifically at the agricultural sector to see what is happening to it. It is absolutely vital. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) said, this is an existential question.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).