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Seasonal Agricultural Workers

Volume 622: debated on Thursday 2 March 2017

4. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the employment of seasonal agricultural workers. (909002)

There is a lot of interest in seasonal agricultural labour at the moment. DEFRA Ministers engage regularly with ministerial colleagues at the Home Office and other Departments to discuss the issue of migrant labour in the agriculture sector after we leave the EU. We are aware that the availability of labour is a concern for some sectors of the industry. However, leaving the EU and establishing controlled migration does not mean closing off all immigration; it simply means that we will be able to identify where we have needs and put in place suitable arrangements.

Growers in my constituency are worried about fruit going unpicked not only after we leave the EU, but this year. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to press the Home Office on this issue, and not only on seasonal agricultural workers after we leave the EU, but between now and then?

As my hon. Friend may know, I spent 10 years working in the soft fruit industry; indeed, I will know many of the strawberry farmers she represents. I am also aware that the Secretary of State has taken up a kind offer from my hon. Friend to visit and meet some of the farmers there to discuss their concerns. As somebody who ran a soft fruit enterprise employing several hundred people, I can tell my hon. Friend that I do understand the challenges the industry faces.

But there is an immediate problem in that many of the fruit farmers in my constituency have already entered into contracts for migrant labour for this coming fruit-picking season. They have been concerned about some reports last week that the Government are considering restricting free movement or introducing work permits when article 50 is triggered. Can the Minister confirm whether that is happening, or give them an assurance that it will not happen and they can fulfil the contracts they have already entered into?

The point that we have been making to the industry when we have met it is that while we remain members of the EU—that is, until we leave, not until we trigger article 50—free movement remains. The feedback I am getting is that most farmers are able to source the labour they need from countries such as Bulgaria and Romania. We will give the industry plenty of notice of what arrangements we intend to put in place after we leave the EU.