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Food and Farming: Employment Opportunities

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2017

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered employment opportunities in food and farming.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. The agricultural sector is essential to the social, environmental, cultural and economic landscape of this great nation. Food production and farming not only make a valuable contribution to feeding the nation but provide employment, help preserve and maintain our beautiful countryside, and contribute to tourism.

Agriculture is the bedrock of the UK food and drink sector. It is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, providing 3.9 million jobs and opportunities across the country. Some 476,000 people are employed on agricultural holdings across the UK, including full-time, part-time and seasonal workers. In west Cornwall, my neck of the woods, the agricultural sector’s contribution is hugely important, accounting for £1.4 billion of the south-west’s economic output, 8,800 businesses and 27,300 employees. Working in farming or fishing can be an exciting career choice, offering a huge variety of opportunities for highly skilled and ambitious people. It is a global industry that uses cutting-edge technology, innovates constantly and makes important contributions to the national economy.

As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on manufacturing, I agree that food, not aerospace or engineering, is our major manufacturing sector. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the brilliant further education provision in his area of Cornwall has been largely responsible for its great innovation skills? I wish we had provision as good as that all over the country.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the sheer scale of manufacturing in the sector and the good work done by FE in west Cornwall, but the manufacturing opportunities in farming and food production, and the wealth that they share and create, are spread across the country rather than being concentrated in one area.

Does my hon. Friend agree that British farmers will be able to promote themselves and their products far more effectively when we leave the European Union and gain control of food labelling?

My right hon. Friend may be aware that I held a debate here early last year on food security and the need to create confidence in what we produce. The only way to do so is with clear labelling, so that consumers know exactly what they are buying, know that we are looking after animal welfare and the environment, and know that people are being paid properly. I agree completely that leaving the European Union allows us to provide direction and clarity about those things.

The food sector generates £1.8 billion in value to UK plc. Jobs in the sector range from engineers and scientists, to farm managers and vets. Given that the industry faces the challenges of an ageing workforce, it is clear that, like any industry, it will need a ready supply of new entrants with new ideas, energy and enthusiasm. As the industry becomes increasingly technologically driven and more reliant on its ability to understand and implement the latest science, businesses across the sector will need the right mix of skills among their employees.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, which reviews unemployment statistics every month. The latest show that just over 500,000 young people are unemployed. Does he agree that the sector provides a great opportunity to tap into some of that talent, upskill those young people and, most importantly, give them a place in the working world?

I am sure the Minister will want to comment on that. There are jobs to be filled in the sector—that is certainly the case in my part of the world. The challenge of offering jobs to those young people is ensuring that their schools properly prepare them for the work, so that they understand what is required and have the skills needed. Employers would then provide them with opportunities and training. I will consider apprenticeships and training opportunities later in my speech.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about jobs. In Northern Ireland, we have 70,000 jobs in the agri-food sector, including 50,000 farmers and workers, 23,500 of whom are involved in food and drink processing. It is worth 3.25% of Northern Ireland’s gross value added and £1.1 billion in basic prices. Does he believe that, when we leave the EU through Brexit, the agri-food sector will be able to grow even more?

I completely agree that there will be opportunities to invest in, grow and encourage food production and farming. I also recognise that population growth here and around the world means more mouths to feed. The UK has an opportunity to rise to that challenge and ensure that people, wherever they live, have the food that they need to survive. We have an opportunity and a moral responsibility to invest in and empower the food and farming sector to meet our growing needs.

So far, I have concentrated on agriculture, which is natural, but it is important not to forget the economic and social contributions made by the fishing industry. In 2015, fishing contributed £604 million to the UK’s gross domestic product, employing just over 12,000 fishermen—meaning people with fishing expertise—half of whom were based in England. One need only visit Newlyn in my constituency, which the Minister knows well, and see the small open boats, beam trawlers, longliners and crabbers in its 40 acres of harbour to realise how essential fishing is to the region.

It is fair to say that fishing and farming, like other parts of the food chain, face numerous challenges in attracting the right number and quality of new entrants. Some of those challenges relate to the perception of such jobs as low-skilled, low-paid, lacking in career progression opportunities and involving hard physical labour in all weathers. When I was at school, I was frowned on for choosing a vocational career in the construction sector rather than going to university, but times have changed and we must recognise that a job in the countryside is a worthwhile career choice that has many benefits not offered by other careers.

The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case for fishing and farming, which are essential to the economy of Yorkshire, as he will know. However, as we approach the election, will he please address the deep uncertainty in the farming and fishing community about what will replace the present system of farm subsidies and fishing rights?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention—we have until 4 o’clock. I am not gifted with that particular answer, but if we can encourage farmers and fishermen to continue caring for the environment and providing the food and skilled jobs that we need, I cannot see any reason why a Government of any colour would not support that.

On exports, we have a wonderful opportunity. We should be proud of and talk much more about the sheer quality and diversity of what we produce. Small and large businesses deliver produce that other people around the world deserve to know about and get their hands on. That is how I would like to approach leaving the European Union.

Other considerations include the rural location of farming and fishing businesses and the cost of rural housing. Also, many young learners consider that it is a career only for those from a rural background. As a result of those challenges, fewer and fewer individuals are interested in pursuing a career in the sector, which is why I requested this debate. We face a generational crisis in the farming, fishing and food sector. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, only 13% of farm holders in the UK are under the age of 45. That figure represents a decrease of 5% in the last 10 years alone.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He makes a good point, because although the Government have had tremendous success in expanding apprenticeships and vocational training opportunities in many industrial sectors, there is a problem in getting younger people engaged in farming. What are his thoughts on taking a more holistic view of farming, in the context of the whole supply chain and the food and drink industry generally, as an opportunity to get young people engaged in training courses?

I have personally done some work on that. Only last year, I brought 36 producers, many of them farmers, into Westminster Hall, the Jubilee Room and other rooms of the House, to celebrate their wonderful, innovative work to develop their produce. I wished to expose their produce to the London market and we made some progress. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must celebrate all avenues in the sector, so that more and more people see the opportunities.

I have always wanted to say that.

According to data from the Department’s farm business survey in 2013-14, the greatest barriers for individuals who want to join the farming sector are the non-competitiveness of salaries, which was cited by 64% of respondents; the lack of job opportunities, which was cited by 55%; and the fact of not owning a family farm, which was also cited by 55%. You can do the maths, Mr Walker. We must increase our efforts to change the perception of the sector, to attract new entrants, to come up with solutions and to provide assistance for young people to overcome barriers to the industry. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what has been done since the release of those figures to address the concerns that they raise.

Examples of initiatives to address this challenge include the industry-wide careers initiative Bright Crop, which seeks to inform school pupils, parents and careers advisers about the range of careers and progression opportunities available in the industry. Other industry career campaigns should be co-ordinated around Bright Crop to provide consistent information that helps to inform and inspire young people about careers in the sector, and outline clear career frameworks that show progression. We need young people, as well as people of all ages, in the food, farming and fishing sectors, because they bring ambition and creativity.

Events over the last decade have demonstrated that food security should not be overlooked. We are still dependent on food imports, because the UK’s farmers produce only 61% of what the nation consumes. Productivity has been rising at an average of 1.5% per annum, but we are in great need of young and highly skilled farmers to come up with ways to keep increasing it. We need technically savvy entrepreneurs and driven young people to use the available state-of-the-art technology, from GPS mapping systems to high-tech milk machines, to keep British farming at the cutting edge of production trends and to fulfil demands. Additionally, because of the current uncertainty over the value of sterling, retailers and consumers are looking increasingly closer to home to meet their needs. The creativity of young people would also help farms across the UK to achieve diversity goals highlighted in a VisitEngland survey in 2016, which showed that 28% of young people were looking at tourism, 16% at contracting, 14% at property and 12% at opening farm shops.

I regularly meet fishermen and farmers and their representatives. On Friday, I met the National Farmers Union and local farmers and we discussed the skills gap at length. The NFU is a founding member of the industry-wide AgriSkills Forum, which seeks to respond to the skills gap by professionalising the industry through skills development and lifelong learning, so that it is seen as a career of choice rather than a last resort. As people enter the industry, it is important that they are encouraged to undertake professional development that helps them to progress in their careers. Continued emphasis on lifelong learning and development will help to attract new entrants to the industry and retain skills within it. The agricultural industry has put significant effort into working towards that goal by launching training and professional development schemes across different sectors. For example, the dairy sector has launched Dairy Pro, which enables workers across the sector to participate in relevant, demand-led training that recognises their experience and builds on their practical skills.

I am concerned that not enough is being done in schools, by careers advisers or in Departments to promote careers and opportunities in the sector. Having said that, I recently joined hundreds of children at an open farm day in Chyvarloe, near Gunwalloe and Helston, at the invitation of local farmer Paul Parfitt. It gave the children the opportunity to see at first hand how our food is produced and what careers are available in food and farming. I also took my family to Tregullas Farm, which is run by the Amiss family on the Lizard, for its open farm Sunday. Open farm Sundays are a successful initiative to increase public awareness of farming and food production. Such initiatives help to dismiss the image of something similar to Tolkien’s character of Farmer Giles. In case hon. Members are not familiar with him, Farmer Giles was a fat gentleman with a red face who chewed on straw and enjoyed a slow and comfortable life which, given recent events, may be something that hon. Members covet over the next few weeks. I may well find myself doing so on 9 June, but I am not quite there yet.

In reality, farming is far from that picture. Farmers are dynamic and hard-working members of society. I have been privileged to discuss with farmers, both during my time in this place and in my pursuit of becoming a Member of Parliament, the opportunities and challenges that they have faced and will continue to face. If we are to address the specific challenge of recruitment, we must move away from this image of Farmer Giles. We must inspire young and talented individuals to look at the sector and do justice to those who already work in it. I echo the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about hoping to see

“more young people being encouraged to engage with countryside matters”.

We must change young people’s attitudes towards agricultural careers and inspire more young people to get involved. I ask what the Government can do. In an age of population growth both here and overseas, in which there are more mouths to feed, there still seem to be more jobs than people. What can the Government do to address the exodus of talent from rural areas, which is something that we are very aware of in Cornwall and on Scilly? I support farmers and food producers who say that schools and careers services must work with the industry to promote farming as an aspirational career choice, and must make better links between STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and their applications in farming. A greater understanding of the range of opportunities in the sector would help to dispel the myth that farming is low-paid and low-skilled. It is important for there to be opportunities for the industry to engage with organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, and for the National Careers Service to work with the sector to provide continuous careers advice and informed information about career and work prospects in the agriculture sector. We need a partnership approach with the industry, with cross-party support, that recognises agriculture as an important and attractive sector to be in. That would be of benefit in further challenging the existing perception.

It is important to recognise that fit-for-purpose qualifications have a crucial role to play in apprenticeships for our industry. I understand the Government’s aspiration for apprenticeships to be the qualifications of the future, but the industry, the employers and the apprentices, and their parents and families, will need a minimum period of transition to allow the inclusion of qualifications that fall outside the current Government criteria while the new trailblazers provide their credentials. I ask the Government to work with employers in the industry even more than they are doing already to develop the 16-to-19 skills plan, so that vocational and technical qualifications and courses are made relevant to the industry and appealing to young people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again—he did say that we had a reasonable amount of time. I do not want to criticise his very good speech, but it is a bit male-dominated. Does he agree that one of the real challenges is the number of women who are becoming farmers or coming into the sector, and that it is time we did something about it?

I was talking about a story that was written several decades ago, but the hon. Gentleman is right. What encourages me is that, when I am out and about on farms or visiting food and farming businesses, I see a number of young people engaged in them, particularly girls. I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee, which is doing a huge amount of work to understand how we can encourage more girls and young women into STEM subjects, because there is a shortage of them and they provide a viewpoint from which we can and must benefit.

My next point might help to reassure the hon. Gentleman. The Department for Education must encourage schools and careers services to work with the industry. It is vital that the Department understands that, although the five GCSEs that we all want our young people to achieve are important, we need to work equally hard within our schools to help young people to realise the opportunities that are available to them outside the school gates in their local area. That would be of huge benefit in addressing some of the challenges that exist. It could allow young people to avoid the pressures of getting into student debt, which I know concerns many people. I am asking the Department for Education to work with the industry to promote farming as an aspirational career, and to establish better links between farming and STEM subjects and their applications.

To conclude, the agricultural industry has been incredibly resilient and courageous in facing numerous challenges in the past. The problems it faces today require the same approach to be adopted. We must be able to maintain the vibrancy of the rural economy and we must also continue to meet our food security needs. Overseas conflict and increasing population growth mean that British farming must have the capability to produce the lion’s share of the food we need to feed this nation, and young people—both girls and boys—offer us an opportunity to meet that challenge. The fishing industry also needs fresh blood. Ensuring that youngsters are recruited to fill the jobs available is crucial not only for the future of south-west Cornwall, but for the future of the entire UK fishing fleet.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate. Food and farming is clearly a significant industry in Scotland, where 98% of the landmass is considered rural, whether that is “remote rural”, which is defined as an area that is more than a 30-minute drive from the nearest settlement, or merely “accessible rural”, where an area is within 30 minutes of a settlement of 10,000 people or more. Almost one in five of the population of Scotland lives in a rural community. Therefore, jobs in the rural sector are vital to the Scottish economy. It is important that, despite the uncertain times we are in, we continue to support the industry, to ensure that it is on a sustainable footing for the future.

Currently, Scotland’s natural environment is worth more than £20 billion per annum and supports more than 60,000 jobs. Between 2010 and 2015, the total turnover of our food and drink industry increased from £10 billion to £14.4 billion; exports in 2016 were worth £5.5 billion, which was an increase of 40% since 2007. So Scottish food and drink really is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. We can see that and we also know the quality that exists within the industry, which is something I will return to later in my comments.

However, there are challenges. The average age of Scottish farmers is now around 58, and only 9% of farm occupiers in Scotland are aged 40 or under. So, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, it is incredibly important that we find ways to bring new young people into the sector, to ensure that it remains sustainable and resilient. We must continue to support industries that are so vital to all of us.

In Scotland, the Scottish National party Government are very keen to support young people to go into the industry, to make sure that fresh and bright young farmers keep the rural economy going in the future. Earlier this month, the Scottish Government announced a fund of £2.5 million to help to develop new entrants into farming. That funding will support the next generation of farmers while increasing the opportunities for young people to establish a career in agriculture. The latest award will see a further 47 new farming businesses share the money, to help them to create and develop their businesses.

I suppose that one of the biggest challenges for any business in a rural economy is the access and uptake of broadband. That is an issue we continue to return to in this House and, as I say, with 98% of Scotland being considered rural, the rollout of broadband to support businesses as we move into an ever more technical world is critical, as it helps the running of rural farming and food businesses.

We are in an uncertain world just now. The UK vote to leave the EU has created significant uncertainty in the agriculture sector. The “hard Brexit” that we so often hear about would be absolutely devastating for sections of Scottish agriculture. For example, cattle and sheep farmers potentially face both high tariffs and loss of subsidy support. There is also the risk to the protection of Scottish protected food names, such as Scotch beef or Stornoway black pudding. We do not yet know what will happen to protected name status. Will we have a scheme here in the UK, given that we will no longer have access to the European scheme?

We also risk losing the common regulatory frameworks that help to maintain food safety, and animal and plant health standards, as well as to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade. Jobs and investment opportunities have been put at risk. For example, there is uncertainty over entering into multi-annual contracts under the Scottish rural development programme agri-environment or forestry schemes. Some of Scotland’s remote rural communities have fragile populations, and EU migration helps to ensure the resilience of those communities. Without that movement of people, there is a real risk, not only for the food and farming industries but for entire communities across Scotland.

The Government’s gamble with our EU membership has created significant uncertainty, with Scotland now facing the loss of much-needed seasonal workers. Agriculture directly employs 65,000 people and underpins our £14 billion food and drink industry, which is one of the fasting growing and most successful sectors in the Scottish economy. Along with other rural businesses, agriculture relies heavily on seasonal workers. However, despite repeated questioning, we have not yet had a clear answer from the UK Government as to what rights will be protected for seasonal workers; an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 seasonal workers are employed in the sector annually. Berry picking alone requires a significant number of seasonal workers, and more than a third of the UK’s soft fruit comes from Scotland.

Clearly, the industry faces challenges. There are common agricultural policy payment issues—there is no point trying to pretend that there are not—and addressing them will be the No.1 priority for the Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government. We have started making 2016 CAP payments, and it is expected that by the end of June the vast majority of farmers and crofters will have received their 2016 basic payments. We understand the frustration felt by the President of the National Farmers Union Scotland with the current IT system for CAP payments. The Cabinet Secretary in Scotland has kept him and other NFUS officials advised of developments in that area, in order to get their valuable input into what else the Scottish Government need to do.

As I have said, the industry provides so many benefits and opportunities for Scotland. It is growing quickly, but for it suddenly to come up against the challenges and risks that Brexit will create has put a big question mark over what we can get by way of guarantees from the UK Government. What protections can we secure for Scotland’s burgeoning food and drink industry, so that it can continue to grow and contribute to the Scottish economy?

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate; he demonstrated that he has a passion for this issue. Although I am not the shadow spokesperson for fishing and farming, I think it is really important that he has raised this issue, which includes the future of fishing and farming, for debate today. This debate is particularly important because across the sector there are serious skill shortages that must be addressed if the success of the industry is to be maintained.

I will start by highlighting the situation in the UK food and drink manufacturing industry, which has up to 400,000 direct employees in roles ranging from sales and marketing to supply chain and logistics, and from production management to engineering. This industry has enormous potential as a high-value manufacturing sector, using innovative technologies in engineering, digital and life sciences to meet all the challenges of managing future food supplies and contributing to the wider carbon reduction agenda. That potential is being put at risk.

The Food and Drink Federation has highlighted that by 2024 more than a third of the sector’s workforce will have retired and 130,000 new recruits will be needed to fill the looming skills gap. A recent survey by the federation revealed that the top five skills gaps in the sector were in engineering, food science and technology, innovation, including product and process development, leadership and management, and customer service management. Although the ageing workforce and the skills gap are not new, the need to close the gap has become more urgent because, as in the rest of the agri-food supply chain, food and drink manufacturers currently benefit from bringing in skilled labour from the EU, which represents 29% of their workforce—120,000 workers. A high number of these workers carry out vital production, technical and specialist roles. Post-Brexit, the industry expects there to be restrictions on accessing non-UK EU workers, which will only intensify the skills gap.

To address the problem, the industry wants to see co-ordinated careers action and a more strategic approach to engagement with schools, to encourage homegrown talent for the long term. The Food and Drink Federation is also asking for technical education reforms, including with the institutes of technology, as the proposed T-levels fall short for the food and drink industry. The federation hopes to fulfil its pledge to increase the proportion of the workforce in food and drink manufacturing who are on apprenticeships to 3%—from the current 1%—by 2020, and to tackle market failures such as the fragmented apprenticeship provision for the sector and the lack of new standards at level 4 and above. I hope sincerely that the Minister will commit to addressing those issues with his appropriate colleagues in the relevant Departments as a matter of priority.

Some 11% of workers in the sector are employed in agriculture, with a high dependence on people from outside the UK. Up to 80,000 workers come to the UK every year to pick fruit and vegetables, 98% of them from the EU. In my own region—the north-east—farmers have told me that they rely on workers from abroad not only for seasonal jobs but to work on their farms throughout the year. Although it is important that young people are encouraged to take up careers in agriculture, the uncertainty in the agricultural and horticultural sectors about their workforce post-Brexit means that there is a need for urgent assurance from the Government. Farmers need the certainty of a good stream of seasonal workers, so if the Government will not give in to pressure to reintroduce the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—SAWS—will the Minister say exactly what measures are being put in place to encourage local people to fill the jobs?

Will the Government support schemes such as Wheels 2 Work, which helps young people in particular to access jobs in rural areas when there is no public transport? Finally, how much resource have the Government invested in plugging the gap left by the removal of SAWS? As food and farming accounts for 13.6% of the total workforce in employment, I hope that the Minister can fully address all the issues raised in the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate, which gives us an opportunity to recognise the importance of the food, farming and fisheries sector, which, let us not forget, employs about one in seven of all workers in this country.

I should declare an interest, in that I, as some of my colleagues know, studied agriculture. I attended Writtle Agricultural College in the early ’90s and studied for a higher national diploma in commercial horticulture. I also did a number of other courses through the local further education college that was mentioned earlier—Cornwall College, down in Camborne in my constituency—which offered some very good work in this area. Also in my constituency I have Duchy College, which is linked to Cornwall College and is one of the country’s leading agricultural colleges. This is an issue that I am passionate about because it is an issue I chose to study myself.

The food, farming and fisheries sector provides a huge variety of career opportunities, including many requiring skills in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM. Food manufacturing is the biggest manufacturing sector in this country, as other hon. Members have pointed out. It employs about 400,000 people and provides about one sixth of the UK’s total manufacturing gross value added. In its 2016 productivity report, the Food and Drink Federation estimated that 130,000 jobs would need to be filled between 2014 and 2024, with food engineers and scientists particularly in demand. Clearly, therefore, there are great opportunities in the food manufacturing sector for today’s talented young people to build their careers.

Agricultural technologies are also transforming farming, creating new types of jobs needing new kinds of skills. Successful modern farming requires technical proficiency, business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. For example, I recently met a group of Tesco young farmers who were investing in developing their business, leadership and management skills and their understanding of the wider supply chain issues, while balancing busy jobs on poultry, dairy, arable and sheep farms.

The food and farming sector is also important to our nation as an industry that has a presence right across the country. It is interesting that we have had contributions from the far south-west—St Ives—and from Midlothian at the other end of the country about the importance of the sector to those areas.

And, let us not forget, Yorkshire. The sector is a particularly significant employer in Cornwall; indeed, I have a number of important food manufacturing businesses in clotted cream and fisheries in my own constituency. Farming alone employs about 64,000 people in the south-west, and the Food From Cornwall website lists more than 330 businesses producing quality Cornish food and drink. Cornwall is, of course, famous for Cornish clotted cream and Cornish pasties, but also for Cornish sardines, or pilchards, and Fal oysters.

Sardines and oysters lead me on to another sector that is important in parts of Cornwall, including, of course, in Newlyn in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. The UK seafood industry offers a wide variety of careers, including in fishing, aquaculture, processing, retail and food service. There can be no doubt, therefore, that across the food, farming and fisheries sector there are fantastic opportunities for our young people to build exciting, challenging and successful careers.

I want to talk a little about the industrial strategy and the post-16 skills plan. To secure the skilled workforce that the food, farming and fisheries sector needs for the future, Government and industry must work in partnership to prioritise training and skills. It is crucial that there are clear entry routes into the sector to help young people embark on their careers, and that employers invest in recruiting, training and developing their staff. The Government have introduced a number of policies on skills. The industrial strategy Green Paper, published in January this year, includes skills as one of its core pillars and has a particular focus on STEM. The post-16 skills plan, published in July 2016, aims to reform technical education by introducing 15 routes, or T-levels. These will include agriculture, environmental and animal care; engineering and manufacturing, which will include food manufacturing; and catering and hospitality. T-levels will provide technical education to equip students for skilled occupations, creating clear routes into the sector.

Reforms to apprenticeships will create fresh opportunities for people to develop new skills and progress their careers. The apprenticeship levy, which came into force this month, provides a new incentive for employers to invest in training. Many employers in the sector are rising to the challenge, and the number of apprenticeship starts in agriculture, horticulture and food manufacturing increased by more than 20% in 2015-16 compared with the previous year.

The Department for Education is exploring options to allow up to 10% of apprenticeship funds to be transferred down the supply chain from 2018, bringing the benefits of apprenticeships to even more businesses. We were keen to promote that idea in DEFRA because it means small farm enterprises within a supply chain could find it easier to benefit from the apprenticeship levy.

Apprenticeships provide great opportunities both to train new entrants and to upskill and develop existing members of staff. I am delighted that exciting new apprenticeship standards for butcher, advanced dairy technician, and food and drink maintenance engineer have now been approved for delivery. Many more are currently in development.

The sharing of the apprenticeship levy down the line is welcome, although I have one point. In Suffolk, a lot of the businesses involved in the sector are small and medium-sized businesses. What will the Minister do to ensure that the discussions he has on T-levels and maintaining quality are not dominated by the larger sector, and that small and medium-sized enterprises that need the staff have their input?

That is an important point. We have experienced people from the food sector involved in the development of the new apprenticeships. The idea that I had came when I visited a McCain factory, which manufactures chips from potatoes. It was clear to me that it had a well-resourced and well-managed apprenticeship programme within McCain, but there are 300 potato farmers in its supply chain. In most cases, those farmers do not have a human resources director to take care and look after an apprenticeship programme professionally. There was an opportunity to use the organisation and the skill sets that companies such as McCain have to foster apprenticeships on farms in Norfolk and Suffolk and wherever potatoes are grown.

I have been privileged to meet apprentices as the Minister responsible for agriculture, fisheries and food at DEFRA, and I know what great careers can begin from an apprenticeship. For example, I recently spoke alongside a former apprentice at a Feeding Britain’s Future event for unemployed young people interested in careers in food and farming. The young man had decided to do a mechanical engineering apprenticeship instead of following a conventional university degree, and after four years of training was earning more than £40,000 a year. Apprenticeships are a brilliant alternative to university because they allow apprentices to earn while they learn. New apprenticeship standards are being developed at degree level. Apprenticeships provide fantastic learning opportunities by allowing apprentices to develop their new skills on the job.

Employers benefit from apprentices. It has been calculated that the average person who completes their apprenticeship increases business productivity by around £214 a week through increased profits and productivity, and better-quality products. Small employers provide fantastic opportunities for people to get on the career ladder. Some 96% of the food manufacturing sector are SMEs, which can also benefit from hiring apprentices. SMEs have to pay only 10% of the costs of training their apprentices—the Government pay the remaining 90%.

The Minister is making an excellent case for the steps that the Government are taking to promote apprenticeships in the agricultural sector. Given the fact that many people decide on where their careers will take them at a relatively early age—it is probably around age 13 or 14—what steps can be taken to encourage younger people to think about careers in agriculture and the whole supply chain, and what work is he doing with schools?

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives also made that important point, which I intend to cover later in my contribution.

The Institute for Apprenticeships began work on new apprenticeships this month and will in time oversee the development of both T-levels and apprenticeships, helping to drive up standards and ensure quality. I am delighted that two members of the board, Dame Fiona Kendrick of Nestlé and Paul Cadman from Walter Smith Fine Foods, bring expert knowledge of the food sector.

Finally, it is important to recognise that we must have continuous career progression once people are in the industry. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board runs a series of activities to boost farm competitiveness and sustainability, including farmer-to-farmer learning through business improvement groups and demonstration farms, so that there can be a sharing of expertise through open meetings, digital tools and knowledge exchange publications. Of course, there will be international benchmarking to learn from the experiences of other countries.

The Landex colleges last year came together to launch a new national college in agriculture, to thread together some of the activities that all of the Landex colleges are engaged in, and to try to secure the progression of more people towards level 3 qualifications, again with the aim of continuous professional career development.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned the image of the industry and the work being done to encourage more young people to go into it. Clearly, there are opportunities in the food, farming and fisheries sector, so we should encourage more young people to explore the sector when they think about their future. Overall, we currently have the highest employment rate—74.6%—since comparable records began, and youth unemployment has been falling, but it remains important to ensure that young people are able to make a smooth transition into the labour market, and that they consider the full range of options available as they prepare to launch their careers.

Careers in food and farming are too frequently perceived as low-paid, low-skilled and lacking in career progression opportunities. We need to challenge some of the outdated myths and champion the great careers that the sector offers. Across the country, engineers, scientists and technicians are at the cutting edge of innovation in agri-tech and food production. Industry-supported organisations such as Bright Crop, which my hon. Friend mentioned, IGD and the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink are working to tackle misconceptions and increase awareness of careers in the sector through initiatives such as Tasty Careers and Feeding Britain’s Future, which is run by IGD, and “The World is Your Oyster”, a campaign run by Seafish. All of those projects highlight the varied career paths that the seafood industry has to offer and the unique opportunities it can provide.

We are highlighting some of the superb apprentices already working in the industry, including by featuring them in the Government’s “Get In Go Far” careers campaign. In February this year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs hosted a roundtable, bringing together a range of organisations to start a dialogue about what more industry and the Government can do together to champion the fantastic employment opportunities available in the food and farming sector. The roundtable heard directly from apprentices working in two leading food businesses—Nestlé and Mondeléz—about their experiences in the sector. The best people to sell the sector are often the young people who are starting out on their own careers in the industry.

The Minister is setting out some fine examples of what is happening, but may I press him on the industry’s need for seasonal workers? We want young people to get into the long-term jobs that he talks about, which is really important and probably the basis of the debate today, but there will be a continual need for seasonal workers. Without the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, how can we perpetuate our agricultural industry?

I shall return to that point—the hon. Lady also made it in her speech—as we have some time available, but the debate is predominantly about careers in agriculture and I wanted to focus on how to encourage more young people into those careers.

A number of hon. Members mentioned women in farming. I spoke at a “Ladies in Agriculture” event at the Farmers Club a couple of years ago—the former Secretary of State, the current Lord Chancellor, has also addressed that event. I mentioned a Tesco young farmers group earlier. Four of the 10 farmers in the group I met were women, so I believe we are making progress. It is essential not to overlook the great contribution that women can make, particularly when they are doing increasingly well in areas such as science. Many countries face the same challenge. Indeed, when I attended the G7 in Japan last year, one of their areas of focus was how to encourage more women into farming. Some of their ideas probably would not cut it over here—it was thought that a demonstration of a tractor with pink patterns on the side of the bonnet might help. I am not sure that would work here, but getting more women engaged in farming is a challenge for a lot of countries.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned the importance of encouraging school-age children to consider farming. The current school food plan actively encourages all schools to give children of primary school age an experience on a farm, so that they can see how food is produced. A number of the county show associations also run good projects. The Royal Cornwall Agricultural Association runs an event every year. It invites schools from across the county to come and learn about farming and farming careers. The Devon County Agricultural Association has as usual copied Cornwall and is running a similar project, which is great. We need as many areas as possible to promote farming as a career in schools.

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) talked about the importance of farming and fishing north of the border, in Scotland. I regularly visit Scotland, particularly in connection with the fishing industry. I remember a visit to the Shetland Islands last year, where there is one of the key training academies for skippers and captains of fishing vessels. He mentioned the average age of farmers, which is another long-standing problem faced by many countries. The statistics often mask the reality, which is that the father is reluctant to let go of the purse strings but the actual manager of the holding is in the next generation down. Nevertheless, we are keen to do more to encourage more new entrants. There have been a number of projects, including some in Wales and some in Scotland. In Cornwall, the “Fresh Start” initiative worked on helping people to retire and creating opportunities for new entrants.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that, because of Brexit, it is an uncertain world. Brexit is a fantastic opportunity. I take a glass-half-full view of it. We have a great opportunity to design an agriculture policy that is better suited to all parts of the UK. Last week, I had a meeting with NFU Scotland to talk about some of its thoughts and ideas about how we could deal differently with policy in future. One thing of which I can assure him is that I have yet to find a fisherman in Scotland who would like us to rejoin the common fisheries policy having left it. The fishing industry almost universally believes that the decision to leave the EU was the right one, and relishes the opportunities that that brings to the Scottish fishing fleet.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), and indeed the hon. Member for Midlothian, mentioned labour. As the hon. Lady will know, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants to respect the rights of EU citizens who are here working in the UK. She made that point early on, soon after the decision to leave the EU, and also made the perfectly reasonable point that obviously we would expect that to be reciprocated, which is not controversial. She has also made it clear that she hopes the matter can be settled early in the negotiations. I believe we can give that reassurance to those living and working in the UK now.

The hon. Lady asked about seasonal labour. Having a controlled migration policy and ending the presumption of free movement does not mean pulling up the drawbridge and stopping all immigration. It simply means what it says—having control of migration. It would be for a future Government to decide what work permits they wanted to grant, and whether they should be short-term permits or permits for more skilled people. That could be done based on an assessment of our needs. If there is a need for seasonal agricultural labour, a future Government will have at their disposal the ability to grant the types of permit that would be needed. All those issues can be dealt with.

This was an important debate on an important subject that is dear to my heart. We have made good progress with our work on apprenticeships, and we have done some great work in schools to promote agriculture and food careers. There is further to go, but I believe we have made a good start.

I thank the Minister for encouraging me when I first arrived in this place to speak in plenty of Westminster Hall debates. I have done that, and he has had to respond to most of them.

The Minister said that opportunity exists in food and farming, and that jobs are increasing in the high-tech area. I agree that there is real potential to create many new well paid jobs. That is exactly what rural areas need to hear and to see realised.

The new T-levels are welcome. They are an important step in addressing the skills gap. I urge the Minister to encourage DEFRA and other Departments, including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to work with the Department for Education to assess how effective and clear the pathway for children into food, fishing and farming really is, so that schools can be encouraged to focus on other things besides the journey towards a university degree or something similar.

Finally, as we introduce measures such as making tax digital, will the Minister contribute to the debate on how people in fishing, farming and food production, particularly those with small businesses, can embrace the opportunity of tax digitalisation, and how we can ensure we have the broadband and mobile phone capacity to deliver that?

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this important debate, and I thank all those who took part.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered employment opportunities in food and farming.

Sitting suspended.