Thursday 6 July 2017
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Global Education: G20 Summit
I beg to move,
That this House has considered promotion of education for all at the G20 summit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Before moving on to the subject of today’s debate, may I take this opportunity to welcome the letter that the Secretary of State for International Development sent to all MPs about the small charities challenge fund? This is a very positive development, which the International Development Committee called for in the previous two Parliaments. It gives smaller UK-based charities the opportunity to access Department for International Development funding to support projects to tackle extreme poverty in some of the poorest countries in the world.
As G20 leaders, including the Prime Minister, meet in Hamburg, this debate is an opportunity for the House to reaffirm the crucial importance of investment in education to tackle poverty and inequality across the world. Millennium development goal No. 2 related to the aspiration for universal primary education. There has been remarkable progress across the world: globally, the number of children not in primary school has been cut by 42% since the year 2000. We should pay tribute to all those who made that important progress possible, not least the civil society and campaigning organisations that worked so hard to secure those goals.
However, there remain about 263 million children and young people around the world who are not in school. Most disturbingly, in Africa today the number of out-of-school children is on the increase, and one in five girls there does not receive a basic education. Globally, millions of children are in school but are not getting even the basics of literacy and numeracy. It is estimated that there are 330 million such children around the world.
I pay tribute to Mark Williams, the former Member of Parliament for Ceredigion. Mark represented that constituency for 12 years, from 2005 until this general election. Between 2010 and 2017, he chaired the all-party parliamentary group on global education. During that period, he led two overseas delegations with the all-party group to Nigeria and Kenya. He hosted countless events and meetings, and engaged with several Ministers on this issue throughout his time as chair. I am sure Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in wishing Mark Williams well for the future.
May I also take the opportunity to encourage Members on both sides of the House to join the all-party parliamentary group on global education, which does fantastic work? I thank RESULTS UK for its work in this area and for helping me prepare for this debate.
Education is at the heart of the battle against global poverty and inequality. The sustainable development goals include SDG 4, which I will return to in a moment, but education is linked inextricably to all 17 of the global goals. Investing in education can improve outcomes in health, empower women and girls, and reduce inequality. Educated populations are much better equipped to build sustainable societies that can move towards the self-financing of development programmes so they cease to be reliant on aid from wealthier countries. We know from our own experience that education is an investment in our economy. An extra year of schooling can increase someone’s earnings by up to 10%, so investing in education is critical if we are to close the global skills gap and secure the jobs of the future.
The Government’s aid strategy has at its core the goal of strengthening global peace, security and governance. Historical analysis demonstrates that inequality itself fuels social unrest, and evidence suggests that when educational inequality doubles, the probability of conflict more than doubles. Most importantly, education is a human right enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights, the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. Every child should have the right to a quality education.
As we know, the United Kingdom is the only G7 country that allocates the UN-recommended 0.7% of GNI to overseas development assistance. As I said during the Queen’s Speech debate last week, I very much welcome the fact that the Queen’s Speech reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to 0.7%. The UK is recognised as a global leader in providing aid for education, and we rank second only after the United States in the amount of aid we invest in basic education.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems in education is that teachers are often poorly paid, if they are paid at all, and have to do other jobs to supplement their pay as teachers? That results in poorer experiences in classrooms where teachers are provided.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. He is my long-standing friend, and represents the constituency that I represented in the House between 1997 and 2005. I welcome him to the House. His point is extremely powerful. In a moment, I will refer briefly to the work that the International Development Committee was doing in the previous Parliament.
I am delighted that the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) are here. They are both in different roles. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is now the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State—I congratulate her on her appointment—and my good friend the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, represents DFID’s offices in Scotland, but is speaking for the Scottish National party from the Front Bench today. They know that the International Development Committee did a lot of work in the previous Parliament on education, and earlier this year we visited east Africa.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) makes is absolutely pertinent, because we saw real issues with the ability of teachers to get themselves to work. Their levels of pay are such that they often have to work other jobs, and teacher absenteeism is often as big or a bigger challenge than pupil absenteeism in some of the poorer communities of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. My hon. Friend makes a very good and powerful point.
DFID has a world-class team of technical staff who deliver the bilateral education programmes and lend support to some of the key multilateral bodies, such as the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait. When the Select Committee visited east Africa and the middle east in the previous Parliament, we saw the fruits of UK aid for education. In particular, when we went to Jordan and Lebanon last year, we saw the amazing impact that aid has had on the refugee population, who came particularly from Syria but also from other conflicts in that region. I want to say once again that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Governments and the people of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, in particular, which have taken so many Syrian refugees. We can also be proud of our record and that of others on ensuring that many of the children from the conflict in Syria have access to education.
In east Africa, we saw some great examples of UK aid being invested. In Kenya, we visited a truly brilliant project, run by Leonard Cheshire in Kisumu, about identifying children with disabilities or special educational needs—I will return to disability later in my speech. That was a fine example of a very positive programme. In Uganda, we visited a frankly inspiring Saturday school in Kampala, which is funded by DFID and educates child refugees from conflicts elsewhere in Africa who have escaped to Uganda for their own safety, in particular from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The UK, via DFID, does many things in education of which we can be proud. As a result, DFID has significant political capital and influence among donors and non-governmental actors, which gives the United Kingdom a responsibility to act as a leader and global advocate on education—including, most immediately, at this weekend’s G20. I urge the Government to use their voice to encourage other donors to allocate more funding to education, and to ensure that existing funding is allocated to areas that most need it.
I also believe—the previous International Development Committee felt this strongly—that DFID can use its influence more with Governments in recipient countries to encourage them to allocate a greater proportion of their domestic budgets to education. Aid alone cannot solve the challenges. Aid has an important role to play, but Governments in some of the poorer countries have a responsibility to spend more of their domestic budgets on education.
Internationally, education is underfunded. To achieve SDG 4—
“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”—
an enormous increase in funding is needed. The Education Commission, led by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, estimates that annual spending on education will need to more than double, from a global level of US $1.3 trillion to about $3 trillion by 2030, if we are to have any hope of achieving global goal 4.
In recent years, however, the sad reality is that we have seen a decline in levels of international aid spending on education. In our own overseas development assistance spending, the amount spent on education is lower than the amounts we spend on health, government and civil society, and infrastructure. The UK remains one of the biggest donors internationally, but the figures show that DFID dedicates only 7.56% of its budget to education.
Over the past 15 years, we have seen spectacular improvements in global health. Those advances are clear evidence that the international community, working together, can bring about genuine transformation if the will is there. Innovative partnerships such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, have helped to reset global health financing standards, saving tens of millions of lives. We have the opportunity to learn from that experience and to do the same for education.
In the spirit of this debate and given the hon. Gentleman’s view that we should increase the percentage of the funding we spend on education, may I ask the hon. Gentleman a question? If he wishes to see a 2% increase, what should we decrease spending on in the DFID budget?
The Minister asks a very reasonable question, which I was going to come on to, but I will answer now.
The previous International Development Committee, which I chaired, was looking at education. In April, we wrote to the Secretary of State with a proposal that I will refer to in a moment. The solution that we identified is one with which the Minister may or may not agree: we should slow down the shift of ODA spending from DFID to other Government Departments. We want to have a good evidence base for additional spending, and the money saved by that slowing down would enable our proposed increase in spending on education. I will come to that in more detail now.
Before the general election, the Committee was taking evidence on education. As I have just said, I wrote to the Secretary of State in April, urging DFID to increase the percentage of its annual spend on education to no less than 10% of its budget, which would represent an additional 2.5% on the current spend of 7.5%. Many organisations, such as the Malala Fund, RESULTS and others, have urged the Government to go much further and commit 15% of the DFID budget to education.
Since we made our recommendation, the latest DFID figures for the budget spent on education have fallen slightly from that 7.56%, so in the first instance the Government need to reverse that decline and then to head to at least 10%. I would be grateful if the Minister—perhaps not in the debate today, but afterwards—provided me with a complete breakdown of all UK ODA spent on education, including that from other Departments as well as DFID.
I now move on to some of the multilateral organisations, which are more directly relevant to the G20 summit. The Global Partnership for Education supports 65 developing countries to ensure that every child receives a quality basic education, giving priority to the poorest, the most vulnerable and those living in countries affected by fragility and conflict. Along with Education Cannot Wait, the GPE forms an essential part of the multilateral landscape on education, with its focus on low-income countries and basic education, where support is most needed. The GPE has been through significant reform in recent years and, as pointed out by DFID’s multilateral development review, it now aligns well with UK priorities.
The view reached by the previous IDC—I am delighted to welcome to his place my friend, the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), an assiduous Committee member since 2010—was that the United Kingdom needs to take a lead during the Global Partnership for Education replenishment round for 2018 to 2020. A substantial contribution from the UK to that replenishment would ensure that the GPE continues to achieve results and, we hope, would act as a lever to encourage and press other Governments to commit their support to funding the work of the GPE.
I also take the opportunity to urge the Government to push for this weekend’s G20 leaders’ communiqué to include a reference to the importance of fully funding the key multilateral bodies, the Global Partnership for Education, Education Cannot Wait and the international finance facility for education.
One of the greatest challenges to face the world in achieving global goal 4 is tackling inequality in education. The theme of “Leaving no one behind” is indeed at the heart of the sustainable development goals. The most marginalised children, including girls, disabled children and refugees, are those most at risk of missing out. A very large proportion of the world’s children are clearly being left behind, and reaching them will be a critical challenge for DFID in the years ahead.
The education of girls is essential, and DFID has rightly made it a priority in recent years. Breaking down the barriers that prevent girls from getting access to education is a huge challenge. I welcome the innovative approach of the Girls’ Education Challenge and recognise that the lessons learned from its programmes could be vital in finding out what works in supporting more girls to receive an education. The G20 rightly has a focus on female economic empowerment. Education is clearly a crucial component of the economic empowerment of women and of economic opportunity for other marginalised sections of society. I urge the Government and the G20 to recognise the vital role that education performs in the economic empowerment of women, especially in the developing world. This summit is an opportune moment for them to do so.
UNICEF estimates that 90% of disabled children in the developing world—nine out of 10 disabled children in the world’s poorest countries—are out of school. That is an extraordinary statistic. The British Council highlighted that although DFID has had a strong focus on girls’ education, it
“has had less focus on children with disabilities and special educational needs”.
The Secretary of State has acknowledged that. She said in March:
“Disability is shamefully the most under-prioritised, under-resourced area in development.”
I agree, as did the last International Development Committee. We recommended in our letter that DFID should place a greater emphasis, akin to its focus on girls’ education, on working to ensure that disabled children have access to appropriate high-quality education. I mentioned the remarkable programme run by Leonard Cheshire that we witnessed in Kisumu in Kenya. That is the sort of programme that I hope DFID not only continues to fund but increases support for, where there is a proven case for doing so.
Let me say something about early childhood education. We know from academic evidence that, by the age of five, a child’s brain is around 90% developed. Early childhood education is crucial for cognitive development and learning outcomes, so investing in pre-primary education can make a real difference to children’s life chances and thereby help to reduce inequality and, indeed, deliver excellent value for money.
It is estimated that, for every dollar invested in early childhood education, the return can be as high as $17 for the most disadvantaged children. Despite that, a new report by Theirworld shows that 85% of children in low-income countries do not have access to pre-primary education. Theirworld states that more than 200 million children under the age of five risk failing to reach their potential.
I apologise for arriving late, Mr Stringer—I was in another debate when this one began.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and I saw a good example of the importance of early childhood education in Tanzania earlier this year. We saw pre-school children being educated in a small rural community, in preparation for their attendance at a primary school. That was a DFID-funded project, and it is exactly the kind of thing that addresses the need that the hon. Gentleman so eloquently set out.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The example that he gave from Tanzania and my example from Uganda demonstrate that DFID is supporting some brilliant programmes for disabled children and for early childhood. If DFID is able to find the funds to increase its education spending, those are the sorts of programmes that should be protected and, where the evidence is there, expanded—either into other countries or in the countries where they already exist.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. He raises a vital question: what does one do in a poor country with a stretched education budget that is finding it difficult to provide decent primary education or any secondary education at all? How does he envisage the conversation with the Education Minister in such a country about setting up the entire pre-primary education and early learning structure, and about the competing priorities that that involves? Has he seen any examples of that actually working on a systematic basis in a poor developing country?
I am grateful to the Minister for his characteristically thoughtful intervention, which speaks to a broader debate about education and where spending priorities should lie. I certainly do not suggest a one-size-fits-all approach for every country in which DFID operates.
To answer the Minister’s question, we saw evidence of that working well in Kenya, where I was impressed by the existing investment programme for early childhood education. In a sense, this is linked to my earlier point about the domestic budgets of recipient countries. Those of us who went to Uganda and then to Kenya were struck that Kenya devotes a significantly larger part of its budget to education than Uganda, and it has chosen to allocate part of that to early childhood education. My argument is this: DFID should seek to increase its funding for early childhood education programmes and, importantly, to integrate those programmes with other relevant areas of the human development portfolio, such as child health and nutrition.
Many Members will be aware of the Send My Friend to School campaign, which for more than a decade has engaged with Members of Parliament up and down the country and invited us into schools in our constituencies to talk about global education. Last year, the campaign engaged something like 400,000 young people, and this year more than 2,000 schools have signed up to it. Next Wednesday, 12 July, 20 students from around the country will come here to Westminster to discuss their campaigning with key decision makers, both in Parliament and in the Government. I look forward to meeting them, and I know that other former members of the International Development Committee in the last Parliament will meet them too.
Many of the students will meet their own local MPs, the Foreign Secretary’s special envoy for gender equality will meet them, and I understand that they will pay a visit to No. 10 to hand in a letter. I believe that an invitation has been sent to the Secretary of State for International Development, and I hope that she might find time in her busy schedule to meet them too.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the debate, which gives Parliament an early opportunity to address the challenges of global education. It is especially timely because it comes at the beginning of the G20 summit. If I am re-elected as Chair of the International Development Committee in this Parliament, I will propose that the Committee resumes and completes its inquiry into global education.
I look forward to listening to contributions to the debate, but I am particularly keen to hear from the Minister a sense of when we might expect a full response to the letter that I sent on behalf of the previous Committee to the Secretary of State. I appreciate that I sent it just as we finished for the general election and it covered a lot of issues, but it would be useful to have a sense of when I might receive a full response.
As I said, it would also be useful to have, at an early opportunity, a full breakdown across Departments of all United Kingdom ODA spending on education. Given the focus of the G20, will the Government commit to making a substantial contribution to the Global Partnership for Education during its replenishment for 2018 to 2020 and push for a G20 leaders’ communiqué that commits to funding key multilateral organisations, including GPE, Education Cannot Wait and the international finance facility for education?
Investment in global education is vital to tackling poverty and inequality, to securing future economic growth, jobs and livelihoods, and to addressing the causes and consequences of conflict. I once again praise DFID for its global leadership in this area, but I urge the Department and the rest of the Government to go further, because investment in education today pays enormous social and economic dividends tomorrow.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. I will make only a few comments—I had not expected to be called, but I am very grateful to you for calling me.
In the course of my membership of the International Development Committee, I have seen several excellent education programmes that underlined to me how extremely important this subject is. I recall a visit—in 2011, I think—to a small private school that had been set up just outside Lahore by a lady, with some helpers, for the children of the workers of a brick factory. The children had been working in that factory, some of them for many years. This was their first opportunity for education, and the thrill on their faces could be seen as they encountered the wonders of education for the very first time. It was a small private school—the state was not able to provide that—it was basic and it was set up pretty much in the open air by an extremely dedicated lady, but it was doing a tremendous service.
Another programme I recall—I think I was with the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—was in Kano in northern Nigeria. We visited a primary school with an enrolment of about 13,000 pupils. It was by far the biggest school I have ever come across. Again, the keenness of all the children could be seen. DFID’s work there was in providing a modern curriculum on the basis of which the children were taught. The school educated boys and girls together, and if I remember rightly, it also had special provision for disabled children. The city of Kano had been subjected to major terrorist attacks just one year previously, but here were boys and girls whose parents were absolutely determined to send their children to be educated.
There is also the example of pre-school provision that I mentioned in my intervention. To answer my hon. Friend the Minister’s point, it was very much supported by the Tanzanian Government, who were determined to put money into it. Young children were being taught Swahili and maths—basic education—in a church made of thatch, mud and wood, because that was the only public building in that village. They were taught by a volunteer from the local community who was paid for by the local community not in salary but in board and lodging. The local community combined with DFID and the Tanzanian Government to ensure that that pre-primary education was in place. We then visited the primary school where some of those children went after spending a year or two in that pre-primary education, and heard directly from the teachers how important it had been that the children had received that education.
I came to realise that education is so important through our work in the International Development Committee in the previous Parliament, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). He is absolutely passionate about this issue, for which I commend him. I hope he is re-elected as Chair, so that he can continue that work in this Parliament. Education is so important because, unless we have first-class education systems throughout the world, people will not achieve the jobs, livelihoods and other things that they have the potential to achieve, and that are absolutely vital for development. They will not have the health services that we know can be achieved, as we have seen in our own country.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby for all his work on this, and I trust that this will be a major theme of the International Development Committee’s work in this Parliament.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who as always gave an extremely comprehensive overview. It is a field that he led in both for his party and in his chairpersonship of the International Development Committee in the last Parliament. I hope he continues in that role—he has my full backing in that regard. It is a role he has taken to avidly and for which he has utilised all of his skills, abilities and experience to the utmost.
The timing of the debate is important, given the G20 summit focusing on sustainable growth and development taking place in Hamburg this week. Sustainable development has been one of the key issues we have focused on in the International Development Committee, as have the sustainable development goals, which are a step forward in overcoming poverty and giving potential and opportunity to people of all ages around the developing world. On our sustainable development goals, the key issue for me is that we leave no one behind. That is extremely important for education, and for the post-school education and vocational training that should be available to all.
I reaffirm the Scottish National party’s commitment to the 0.7% foreign aid target—I believe there is cross-party consensus on that, which I am extremely pleased about. Education for girls is something that we have taken a lead role in and have championed, and we should continue to champion it in future. I will focus particularly on secondary education and girls’ access to it. Our achievements in primary education are changing cultural values and beliefs about the worth of girls, and about the cultural stereotypes that we must overcome. However, until girls have equal access to secondary education, equal value and equal opportunity will never be fully achieved.
Our history shows that, when girls and boys have had access to proper education through to secondary school and further training beyond, it has been possible for all to reach their full potential, no matter which area of the country they come from or whether they come from a disadvantaged background. We need to learn from our own history, but we also need to support those across the developing world to aspire to achieve that. We need to try our very hardest to leave absolutely no one behind.
In some countries that I had the privilege to visit with the International Development Committee, early marriage continued to be an issue, particularly for girls. It took them out of school at the age of 13 or 14, meaning that they were unable to aspire to careers or think about what they wanted to do in their future outwith a marriage at that very early stage of their lives. Secondary education is key to changing those attitudes and stereotypes, and to affording girls the full potential of their own lives and making choices therein.
There were other worries from our work on early marriage. When I visited Nigeria and Kenya, I spoke with local people who said that, although there appears to be less early marriage, it is because it is often not recorded—it still takes place, but it is a cultural marriage and not an official one. The statistics we have do not show the depth of the difficulty we face. I ask the Minister to target young girls who want to continue education and give them support to overcome early marriage where we can. I would also like the Minister to look at the data to ensure that we have accurate statistics on early marriage.
The Committee looked at the importance of data collection on our sustainable development goals. We can use innovative techniques such as mobile phone data to collect appropriate statistics. I would be interested to know how we are updating census material to show that we are working towards the sustainable development goals utilising all data sources, which will be extremely important in that regard.
Jobs and livelihoods are another key issue. It is important that we look beyond the formal role of education and think about vocational training for young people in developing countries. We should lend our support for apprenticeships, sustainable businesses and employment opportunities. When I was in Nigeria, I was rather disappointed to meet Ministers who appeared to be creating vocational training centres focused largely on opportunities for boys. There appeared to be cultural stereotypes—girls did not have the same access and thought was not given to girls’ vocational opportunities.
I have a particular focus on education for disabled children, as hon. Members will attest. I have been chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability since the previous Parliament. I was heartened to see the work being done and the progress being made on some of the International Development Committee’s visits. We saw work supported by DFID, including work supported from my own constituency of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. It is extremely important that we try to lead the way on inclusive education and prioritise it. We have the skills and the ability to support other countries, and it is extremely important that we use them to help the most vulnerable right across the world—disabled children are the most vulnerable. I believe the public would be behind that type of initiative, and I would like to hear from the Minister on that.
An issue that came up during one of our visits—I think it was in Kenya—was that specialist teacher training for work with disabled children tended to be for those in secondary schools. Most disabled children were not reaching secondary school—many were not able to access primary school, but even when they did, they were not going on to secondary school. Where we can, we must focus our efforts on making teacher training inclusive and ensuring it is at the right level, so that teachers who will be working with disabled children are also available in primary schools, where the majority of disabled children will start their education.
Investment in buildings is important. We saw some good examples of wheelchair-accessible schools in Kenya and the difference it can make to children who can then come into the classroom, socialise with peers and have such a better quality of early life. Overcoming marginalisation and ensuring we help the most vulnerable disabled children to achieve their potential is crucial. I argue strongly that we should be leading on that. We cannot fail if we are to meet the sustainable development goal of leaving no one behind.
One example that touched my heart was in Tanzania, where I spoke to people from Sense who informed me about a young girl who was both deaf and blind. Her parents, out of fear for her safety, would tie her to a tree locally for most of the day while they worked in a nearby field, because they worried that she would wander off. Obviously, the risks to her person and the quality of her life were absolutely atrocious, but the parents struggled to know how to sustain the rest of the family while looking after her very specific needs. Sense worked with the family to ensure that a care placement was provided for her during the daytime, to give her an excellent quality of life, comparatively, and to ensure that her parents felt secure in the knowledge that she was safe during the day and that they had the support they needed. Some of these initiatives require additional resourcing, as they are resource-intensive, but the magnitude of change they can make to a young disabled child’s life is without comparison.
I would like to mention the visit I undertook with the International Development Committee to a school in Lebanon that hosted Palestinian refugee children. The work being done there was inspirational. However, the school building lacked windows, and the children had to wear gloves because it was often too cold for them to write and learn. Where we are contributing funds and working on education, I would like us to take a holistic approach to ensure that the environment is conducive to the education of children attending the school.
A worrying issue was raised while I visited camps in Lebanon and Jordan. One camp that we were not able to visit, due to apparent security issues, was for Palestinian refugees. We were told by civil society representatives that the electricity system in the camp, which has been there for many decades, had no health and safety standards, and there were regular reports every week of individuals being electrocuted. Will the Minister follow that up or write to me about the work we are doing there? I understand that we provide education support to the camp, but I was told that we do not provide sanitation, electricity or other basic needs because it is not DFID’s role. However, the very basic human rights are for safety, shelter and sanitation, and people being electrocuted every week is not right. If we are contributing to that camp, health and safety standards must be correct, and we must surely provide for those people’s needs.
While we saw some very good education work by the British Council in the countries we visited, we tended to meet only the most affluent individuals who accessed it. I hope the Minister will tell us how the British Council is reaching out to marginalised and disadvantaged groups and ensuring that children from all backgrounds can learn English with our support.
Finally, I pay tribute to the Send My Friend to School campaign and all the work that our local schools have been doing, which shows how strongly they feel that access to education for all children right around the world is important. I look forward to the Minister’s response and thank the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby, and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), for their excellent contributions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I would particularly like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for his invaluable work as Chair of the International Development Committee and for calling this debate today.
It is a great shame that because of the general election, the Committee’s final report on its long-running inquiry, “DFID’s work on education: Leaving no one behind?”, was unable to be published, but I am sure it soon will be. I know that all members of the Committee worked hard on that inquiry and I thank everyone involved, including those who gave evidence and assisted on the Committee’s visits to the middle east and east Africa, for their work on this important subject.
Today has been an excellent opportunity to hear more about the Committee’s findings. As is often the case with international development issues, cross-party contributions have shown the strength of support on both sides of the House for global education. I thank all those who have spoken for their interesting and insightful contributions. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and the hon. Members for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron).
I want also to mention the fantastic levels of public support for education aid, which have been shown through the Send My Friend to School campaign. More than 2,000 schools have signed up to that campaign, calling on the Government to increase their investment in the power of education. I was very fortunate to visit one such school: Starks Field Primary School in my constituency.
As has been made clear throughout this debate, DFID has a proud history as a world leader in helping to transform the global education agenda. During the past 15 years, UK aid has supported 11 million children through education. The UK remains one of the biggest donors to education internationally. DFID has shown commitment to providing education to the most vulnerable in difficult situations—for example, by dedicating resources to girls’ education and to the education of refugees in conflict situations.
Access to education ensures that people have an opportunity to get the best start in life. Education provides hope and empowerment to those who receive it. It is a vital tool in ending poverty, improving health outcomes and tackling gender inequality by empowering girls. Investing in education addresses not only inequality, but issues of security and radicalisation. It is the vehicle to a more prosperous, stable and safe society. Above all, it is a human right, enshrined in law.
Thanks to the millennium development goals’ focus on achieving universal primary education, the number of children in primary education has greatly improved since the year 2000. According to RESULTS UK, which supported me no end in preparing for this speech, the number of children out of primary school has been cut by 42% since 2000. However, much more needs to be done. Save the Children describes the situation as “a learning crisis”. More than 263 million children worldwide are not in school, and hundreds of millions of children are in school but not learning as a result of the poor quality of their education. How is that right? If the current trend continues, how will we reach the target of ensuring that everyone has access to education? That will become almost impossible.
To provide a quality education for all, we have to address not only the issue of teachers, but the environment in which young children are trying to learn. We have heard fantastic examples today of where DFID is doing the best it can, but it needs to consider holistically how we are to achieve the goals if a school does not have windows, a roof or running water. We must work together to ensure that every child has the best education, and we must do that by setting a strong example, which I know DFID has done.
That is why Labour, in line with the International Development Committee and non-governmental organisations, recommends that DFID publish a new 10-year education strategy. In line with that recommendation, it would be helpful for the Minister to outline how DFID’s strategy of value for money will take into account the higher cost of delivering ambitious education programmes, such as targeting left-behind vulnerable groups. I am thinking of programmes aimed at girls and especially persons with disabilities.
There are two bodies—the Global Partnership for Education and the Education Cannot Wait fund—that, with continued funding, will help to achieve the strategy to which I have referred, so I would welcome an announcement from the Minister on whether those two bodies will see continued funding. The next replenishment conference for the Global Partnership for Education is in early 2018, so will the Minister update the House on whether the Government will be following the International Development Committee’s calls for them to sustain or increase financial support for the Global Partnership for Education? I applaud DFID’s work in helping to establish the Education Cannot Wait fund to provide support for refugee education.
In the light of the excellent work that DFID has done in improving access to education for refugees in the middle east, will it be extending that work to help refugees in east Africa and particularly in Uganda, where there are more than half a million South Sudanese refugee children?
I call on the Minister today to provide an assurance that the percentage of DFID spending on education will not be cut in the next two years or, indeed, after Brexit. I am sure he will join me when I say that it is particularly important for the Government to step up as a strong advocate for global education at a time when there is no explicit reference to sustainable development goal 4 in the G20 agenda. That will show that the UK Government want to be a world leader on education.
If the Government lead with the recommended positive actions—increasing financial support for the Global Partnership for Education and for Education Cannot Wait, along with publishing an education strategy—that will highlight Britain’s continuing commitment to global education and encourage other international donors to follow suit. I look forward to working with the Minister on these issues.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. As always, we have had a very good debate. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for initiating the debate. He is a real inspiration, as are the other hon. Members in the Chamber. It is quite unusual in politics—it sometimes feels unusual, anyway—to have people who seem so sincere, so committed to an issue and so interested in the detail, rather than simply being interested in posturing, and that really comes across. One reason why the whole House feels strongly that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby has been an excellent Chair of his Committee is precisely that he approached the role in a very fair, objective and ethical fashion. It is therefore a great pleasure to be involved in this debate.
An enormous number of things have been touched on today. The basic message that I would like to get across is that the real problem in this field is not the big ideas, but the implementation. The really big problem, underneath all the very good contributions and really good points made by hon. Members, is that the situation on the ground in many developing countries is an absolute disgrace. Very sadly, what is happening even in those schools that exist is really depressing. I will try to touch on some of the points that have been made, but the scale of the problem is the central issue.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made a series of really good points—points that it is easy to relate to. They were points about disability, about schools that she has seen in which there are no windows and children are wearing gloves and—I am imagining the Shatila camp in south Lebanon, where there are real problems—about electricity. Very good points were also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby about issues such as pre-school education. The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), made a very strong statement about refugees in Uganda, and others have made statements about disability.
The fundamental underlying problem is that before we start talking about all those things, we have to acknowledge that the basic primary education in most of the countries that we are discussing is not even beginning to be good enough. Nearly 67% of children coming out of primary schools in the developing world basically cannot read or write. One of the tragic choices that an international development agency faces is how to get the balance right between making sure that the schools and teachers that already exist are teaching something of value to their children and a dozen really good ideas about how we can improve things by bringing new people into schools, getting girls into secondary school, improving vocational education or addressing the crisis in classrooms.
Money is one of the aspects of this problem. This excellent report, “The Learning Generation: Investing in education for a changing world”, put together by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, estimates that $3 trillion needs to be spent on education annually within a pretty short period. We can have a discussion about whether DFID should spend 8%, 10% or 12%, but the amount it currently spends on education is one five-thousandth of the amount that would be needed to address global education. Even if we took up the challenge from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, ramped that up and spent 100% of the entire British aid budget on education, that would still be only one five-hundredth, or 0.2%, of the global need.
Huge theoretical problems underlie this endless debate. One of the challenges is what kind of jobs or employment opportunities are available to children in the developing world when they come out of school. One of the challenges around vocational education is working out what jobs there are at the end of it. Like the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, I was in a vocational training centre in Nigeria last week. I was in Kaduna. I do not know whether we were looking at the same centre, but in the centre I was at the carpentry and construction schools were indeed dominated by men; the women were largely in the hospitality and sewing schools.
The fundamental problem underlying that issue is that it is not clear that there are any jobs in Kaduna for people who sew, cook, make buildings or do carpentry—the skills that those people emerge with at the end. At the end of a six or twelve-month course, are they skilled enough as carpenters or construction workers to be valuable to a business? Many of the employers we talked to in Kaduna in northern Nigeria are much less interested in those hard vocational skills than they are in soft skills—someone’s ability to engage with customers and their work ethic, discipline and desire to turn up to school.
There are huge questions in the report around family planning. All of us can see the correlation between investment in girls going into secondary education and girls having smaller families, which is very good for their health. But what exactly is that relationship? Is it that what they learn in school makes them less likely to have children or is it simply about the fact that they are in school? If it is the latter—if the fact that someone stays in high school means they are less likely to have children—will the social pressures that drive people into early marriage simply mean, conversely, that those same girls are removed from school?
The claim is made that if someone in the developing world goes to primary school, their income over their lifetime will be five times higher than that of their parents. But if we got everybody into primary school, would that be true? We would effectively be claiming that we could guarantee to quintuple the GDP per capita of these countries by getting 100% primary education. That, presumably, is not true.
Above all, we have to start from a position of realism. We agree violently with everybody in this room that education matters, but we must get a clear sense about why it matters and the unexpected ways in which it does. There are ways in which it might matter for family planning, but exactly why does it? How does it work for skills? Imagine a craftsperson in central Asia. What exactly are they learning in school that will allow them to supply calligraphy to a Saudi hotel or get carpets into a London market? Is it their literacy and numeracy skills or their confidence? What kind of emphasis are we putting on opportunity, empowerment or getting people into a digital world? What kind of jobs are we trying to prepare people for?
Ethiopia famously believes in a policy of agricultural-led industrialisation, but is the industrialisation envisaged in 1991 going to be an option in 2020? Or will—as Larry Summers, one of the co-authors of the report, suggests—increased automation mean that the shoe factories we were hoping for are increasingly located close to markets such as Britain and the United States because the shoes will largely be made by robots? These are big questions underlying what we are trying to do in the education system.
I am following what the Minister says extremely carefully and entirely agree with the thrust of his argument. In his work has he seen good examples of where this work preparedness and soft skills, which will be vital for young people if they are to have the jobs and livelihoods they need in the future, are happening, either in DFID’s programmes or elsewhere?
The honest answer is that I have seen them, but they are easier to identify in schools where a great deal of investment is going in to individual children. I have a particular case study in mind of a vocational training school that does a three-year course that includes literacy, numeracy and English along with vocational skills, has a business incubation process at the end of it, links people into an industrial park, helps to create the markets and then moves away. But that requires an enormous amount of investment in the individual and is very difficult to replicate at scale.
One of the challenges is that that gold standard, which really does get extraordinary successes—at that particular vocational school, 95% of graduates find their way into employment in those sectors—is being achieved for an expenditure of about $1,200 per person per year. How is that going to be achievable with investment down at $50 to $60?
As I move on with the argument, the key is the very detailed work done by DFID education advisers—looking critically at what goes on on the ground, for example. One of the striking things we see from this conversation going back and forth is the real differences that exist between Kenya and Uganda, or Tanzania and Lebanon, and the different ways in which people are approaching this issue.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby has focused a great deal on spending. We will reply to the hon. Gentleman by letter, having taken on board the overall ODA expenditure on education; the plea for the excellent global partnership, which we do believe in; and the request on the G20 communiqué. All that is fully lodged in the brain. Fundamentally, however, my argument is that, although spending is very important, the big question is not about expenditure but about what we actually do. It is not the “how much”, but the “how”.
How do we sort out teacher training in the developing world? How do we deal with the issue of ghost teachers? How do we deal with the fact that in many cases we are paying the salaries of teachers who do not exist? A survey found that in Ghor province in Afghanistan 3,500 teachers on the Afghan Government payroll were not teachers at all—they were just ordinary people sitting at home and receiving a teacher’s salary. That is replicated again and again across the developing world.
How do we deal with political resistance? How do we deal with a country where a particular political party has taken over the teachers’ union? How hard can the teachers’ union be pushed? How do we deal with the fact that many of the teachers being dealt with are spending most of their time teaching in private schools and only part of their time teaching in the public schools for which they were originally employed?
We all agree that education matters. We are really proud in DFID of what we have done. We are proud that we have achieved this 43% change in the number of people going into primary education. It is extraordinary. Countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan now see primary school registration rates, theoretically, of 88% or 90% of children. If we look back 15 or 20 years, in Afghanistan, famously, no girl was going to school at all. These are incredible changes, but there is so much more to do.
If I may for a second, I wish to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who has, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow pointed out, put a lot of emphasis on disability. She has also put a lot of emphasis on some of the issues that are raised by Gordon Brown’s Education Commission. One that we have not discussed today is testing and standards—all the grisly stuff that, in the British context, gets everybody overheated about Ofsted. That is a critical question: how much emphasis do we put on testing? More than 50% of the countries concerned have no testing in place.
I am aware that I am trespassing on your patience, Mr Stringer, so I will move toward the end of my speech. I do not wish to continue for too long, but I will make two main points. One, before we all give up in despair, is that there are places where progress has been made. Ethiopia is a striking example of a place that has gone from one in five children in school to four in five. How has that been achieved? Largely through the leadership of the Ethiopian Government, who are genuinely committed to education, teacher training, getting people into remote areas and access for marginalised communities such as disabled people, women and others.
We have had other kinds of experiences in other countries. One question is how to deal with the particular context. In Afghanistan, education is community-based, and Save the Children, CARE and the Aga Khan Development Network work in remote rural villages in Hazarajat. That is quite different from what reform means in Jordan, where USAID has been working with the Jordanian Government on education for nearly 40 years; in the Education Minister’s office, reports are piled up almost to the ceiling. There is almost nothing in one of those reports from 1987 with which we would disagree today, but the challenge has traditionally been implementation, particularly on difficult issues such as how to deal with teachers’ unions—to drop a grenade into the middle of this room.
Dealing with teachers’ unions is not as easy as it might sound in a British context. In Jordan, the issue has famously been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. We can discuss the political contexts in other countries, and what they mean for the curriculum and for what goes on in the classroom. In conclusion—to reassure you, Mr Stringer, that I will not remain on my hind feet forever—
I am listening intently to the Minister’s comprehensive speech. One practical thing that could be done is to give advice and support to those becoming primary school teachers, so that they have the ability, skills and experience to teach disabled children and so that education at that level can be inclusive. In the countries that we visited, some secondary school teachers have had those skills, but they do not reach primary school children.
I could not agree more. Teacher training is vital, especially teacher training on how to deal with children with disabilities and, in a refugee context, how to deal with children suffering from trauma. One impressive thing that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow might have seen in Jordan is the learning centres run by Save the Children and UNICEF, where psycho-social counselling is a strong element of the teaching.
However, there is a more fundamental challenge, which is that in some countries, around 50% to 60% of teachers are illiterate—they cannot read or write. In many other countries, 80% of teachers are educated only one grade above their students: that is, if they are teaching second grade, they have a third grade education. While thinking about how to ensure that teachers can deal with disabled children, we must begin by ensuring that teachers can read and write. If they cannot, it does not matter how good the textbook is or how fancy the internet provision is; the teacher lacks the most basic skills to communicate. We are all a bit polite in this business. At the moment, those kinds of facts—and the fact that more than 60% of the children leaving such schools cannot themselves read or write—are not being mentioned enough in this debate.
To finish with the shadow Minister’s challenge, yes, we will produce an education strategy, which I hope will address many of these issues and more that Mr Stringer has not given me time to address in this debate. Those will include the seriousness of Governments’ commitments to education. What do we do when the national Government are not committed and do not care very much? What do we do in a conflict situation where there is no state in place and almost nobody to work with to drive through education? How do we think about classrooms? In particular, what is the point of a classroom if affordability is a challenge and if uniform or food costs make it impossible for a child to go to school, or if the opportunity costs of that child not being at home to look after livestock or a baby prevent the parents from sending them to school? What do we do with the digital revolution?
Above all, how do we challenge business as usual? How do we move beyond this excellent report and all the wonderful things that we hope will follow from organisations such as the G20 and the UN to realising that there is an enormous, fatal, terrifying gap between rhetoric and reality in this, as in so much else in international development?
I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate. It is always a pleasure to listen to the Minister; he was characteristically thoughtful and thought-provoking. To take up his point about “how much” versus “how”, I have focused a lot on the funding because of my sense that the G20 is an opportunity to make a breakthrough, but I absolutely concur that the “how” is of equal if not greater importance and that learning from the evidence what works is best of all. The example that he cited from Ethiopia is an interesting one from which we can learn.
I welcome the fact that DFID will publish an education strategy. I praise the work done by education advisers, and particularly by some of the bilateral education programmes that DFID runs around the world. Many of the challenges that the Minister described are not dissimilar to challenges in our own domestic education policy. As I listened to his comments on jobs, soft skills, literacy, numeracy and confidence, it struck me that, although the challenges may be of greater scale in the poorest parts of the world, the fundamental issues are very similar.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken. My good friends, the hon. Members for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr. Cameron), contributed enormously to the International Development Committee in the last Parliament, and I know that they will continue to be keen advocates for international development in this one. The hon. Member for Stafford has been a particularly great advocate for global health, jobs and livelihoods. The voice that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow gives to disabled people, particularly disabled children, is powerful and had a big influence on our Committee’s work in the last Parliament.
My hon. friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), the shadow Secretary of State, referred to a number of things, but I particularly noted her point about refugees in Uganda, to which the Minister also referred. When we were in Uganda, we were struck by the generosity of the Government and the people in their response to refugee flows. Support for that, including education, is vital. I welcome the Minister’s positive response to the specific points that I raised about the G20 and the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education. I hope to work with him and his colleagues in the weeks and months ahead to take forward that important agenda.
Finally, the Minister asked me, perfectly reasonably, where the money would come from. In our letter in April, the Committee said that we felt that the pace of the shift from DFID to other Departments could be slowed and that the money saved could be invested in education. As well as the inquiry into education that was interrupted by the general election, we had just begun an inquiry into non-DFID overseas development assistance. Whoever the Committee Chair and members are during this Parliament, I am sure that focusing attention on the parts of overseas development assistance that come through other Departments, as well as on those that come through DFID, will be an important priority for our work. I thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I thank all colleagues who have taken part in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered promotion of education for all at the G20 summit.
Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
[Relevant document: Seventh Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2016-17, Feeding the nation: labour constraints, HC 1009.]
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. There are two points to this debate: first, to highlight the current problems experienced by many in the horticulture and agriculture sectors in recruiting enough seasonal workers; and, secondly, to propose a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme after Brexit and ensure that the industry has enough seasonal workers to pick British fruit and veg.
It is no secret that this country relies on foreign labour to pick its fruit and veg. Some 80,000 seasonal workers pick and process British fruit and veg every year. The majority of them are from the European Union. Many are from Romania and Bulgaria. For better or worse, that is the current situation. Without those workers, British fruit and veg could rot in British fields, and that is the last thing we want. The problem is that seasonal EU workers are getting harder to recruit. Brexit and uncertainty about the status of EU migrants in Britain have played a part. Improving living standards in eastern Europe, particularly Poland, mean that fewer workers are attracted to Britain for higher pay. Perhaps the biggest factor in the labour shortages is the fall in the pound against the euro. The reduction has been between 17% and 20%.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the soft fruit industry in this country is a big success story. One of the major producers in my constituency is 77 staff short at the moment. That means leaving fruit unpicked. There is a real risk that this major success story could be undermined unless we get a good new seasonal agricultural workers scheme deal in place for the post-Brexit situation.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. We have an extremely successful soft fruit industry. In parts of the country, we have very good vegetable growing, too. By their nature, those crops are perishable, so we have to have the labour there at the right time.
The fall in the value of the pound has immediately made work in the UK less attractive to EU migrants. It is time that the large retailers did something. If they do not buy British fruit and veg, they will have to buy it from the continent and pay more for it because of the value of our currency. It is high time that they stepped up to the plate and ensured we are getting a good price for an excellent crop that has nowhere near as many food miles.
Labour shortages are already having serious consequences. A recent BBC survey of members of British Summer Fruits and the British Leafy Salads Association showed that one in five growers already has fewer pickers than they need. Last year, when the Select Committee did an inquiry, an asparagus grower told us that he employed 900 staff. Those staff are needed when the asparagus is fit. A full 78% of respondents said that recruitment had been more difficult in the past year. That shows that the problem might be getting worse and the situation getting tighter.
A separate National Farmers Union survey from May reported a shortfall of some 1,500 workers. It also reported fewer returning workers in the first five months of the year. That paints a worrying picture. In the short term, it means that some food might simply not be picked. It also means higher prices in the shops for the fruit and veg that is picked. In the long term, if British farmers struggle to source the labour they need, that may delay decisions to invest. That could be a real problem. It could even export jobs and agriculture and horticulture industries abroad. We must not export our industry.
We also need greater flexibility in our labour market. Constituents come to see me because they often find it difficult going on and off benefits with short-term work. They get that work, but if they cannot get any long-term work, they have to go back on benefits. They are not always encouraged to get those jobs, and we want to see more of our own labour out there in the fields.
I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important topic. I bring the Chamber’s attention to my declaration of interest as a major shareholder in a vegetable processing company based in my constituency. Does he agree that businesses such as those in North West Leicestershire are based in areas with sparse populations, but very low unemployment? In my constituency, unemployment is less than 1%. Not only does local labour not necessarily want to take short-term, insecure work, but they are not available to do it, because unemployment is so low.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is partly because of the success of our economy that we have so much going on and that we need this labour. My constituency has the same situation as his, with very low unemployment. I do not have as much vegetable growing, but I have meat and poultry processing, which are almost entirely done by central and eastern European labour, and that is an issue. We want to ensure that we can find as much home-grown labour as we can, but we have also got to have accessibility to labour from Europe and, in the future, probably from beyond Europe.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He allows me to segue neatly on to an issue that does not just affect agriculture. We have labour from beyond Europe in fishing. There are fishing boats on the west coast of Scotland and in Northern Ireland that are tied up at the moment due to a lack of people. One boat alone has lost £100,000 in uncaught fish. People are willing to come back from the Philippines to the boats they used to work on. The Scottish community is one thing—everyone says yes in the Philippines and Scotland—but if one man in London says no, we cannot get the people in. The Immigration Minister has a big role to play here.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point on fishing. As we leave the European Union, there should be greater opportunities for fishing and catches, but we need the labour to do that. Going out to fish is not always seen as the nicest job in the world. We have probably got to look not only at labour availability in the long term, but the types of fishing boats we are using and everything. There is a lot to be done, but we need labour.
This April, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a report on labour constraints in agriculture. We came to a clear conclusion: the sheer weight of evidence from a range of farming and horticulture businesses was that they have big problems in retaining labour. We did not necessarily share the Government’s confidence that the agriculture sector does not have a problem. Some of the figures that the Home Office Minister provided were perhaps six or nine months out of date, and the situation is getting tighter all the time. Simply put, the challenge will become a crisis if the Government do not swiftly take measures. The challenge will only become more acute after Brexit, when the free movement of workers ends.
A strategy is urgently needed to ensure that British agriculture has the workers it needs in the short to medium term. Many people ask why British people cannot do the jobs. We all agree we want to see more British workers in the industry in the long term. It is not sustainable to rely on almost exclusively foreign labour for seasonal jobs. We need to think about a long-term shift now. Unemployment is now at 4.6% nationally. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) said, in many constituencies it is much lower. In fact, it is at its lowest since 1995.
In many constituencies we are reaching almost full employment; it could be said we are a victim of our great success. The truth is there are not necessarily enough workers who are able and want to do the jobs. In my own constituency in Devon where agriculture is a key part of the local economy, there simply is not the demand for such seasonal labour among local people, so foreign labour must play a part.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate this afternoon. He has mentioned only in passing a word that has two syllables: one begins with “Brex” and the other begins with “it”. That clueless exercise is at the bottom and at the heart of the difficulties that we have now. The ending of freedom of movement has created massive difficulties and we will not get access to labour. What does his report say about how freedom of movement helps assist the situation?
There is no doubt that freedom of movement helps to assist the required labour for these industries. In a minute I will talk about having a seasonal workers scheme that I think will help not only those in the European Union, but those who come from beyond the European Union, if they wish to come and work here. The one thing that the Brexit vote showed is that many people who wanted to leave the European Union might have done so because they wanted some control over the number of people coming in and out. I do not think they were necessarily against people coming here to work; I think they wanted to know who was coming and who was leaving. Perhaps that is one of the policies that we will have to get in place.
The alternative is to see food go unpicked and our industry potentially relocated abroad, which we really do not want. We want a pro-British policy that keeps our industries here with enough workers to make sure we pick the fruit and veg.
So how do we solve the problem? Luckily, there is a solution that does not require unfettered free movement within the EU and addresses the need for specific skills in each sector: namely, a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme. The scheme has run in various guises since 1945. In short, it allows non-British workers to work in UK agriculture on a temporary basis. The last version of the scheme was closed in 2013, prior to the free movement of labour from Bulgaria and Romania.
Once Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, a new seasonal scheme will become essential to ensure British agriculture has enough labour. A new scheme has three main advantages: first, it would allow the Government to control the numbers. It would not be the free movement of old. Instead, it would allow the UK to import skills and labour for specific sectors of the economy. Secondly, we could extend the new seasonal scheme to EU and non-EU workers. That would give the UK wider scope to source the agricultural workforce it needs. We would not need to rely so heavily on two or three EU nations for seasonal labour. Thirdly, a scheme could be designed so that applicants have to have a confirmed job before entering the UK. That would fit with what looks like the likely immigration model for Britain after leaving the EU.
In giving evidence to the Committee the previous Immigration Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), stated it would take five to six months to establish a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme. That means it is too late to establish a scheme for this summer’s harvest, but it may be an option for 2018 if labour shortages are still a problem. We are seeing a tightening in the labour market.
I am sure my hon. Friend will know from conversations with farmers that they need to make decisions years in advance of growing fruit. Is it not the case that farmers need positive signals from the Government sooner rather than later and preferably a pilot scheme next year rather than a wait and see approach, which is what we have heard up till now?
My hon. Friend makes a good point regarding a pilot scheme. I am fond of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, but I do not always share his confidence that Government can move quickly to make sure that everything is in place within a few months. We ought to plan ahead much more. A pilot scheme next year, or an even wider scheme, is essential. Here we are in July 2017; two years will pass incredibly quickly and we need to be ready.
On the labour shortage problem, the new scheme in 2018 would allow workers from outside the EU to top up any shortages that EU workers were not able to fill. Secondly, it would ensure the UK is match fit for Brexit after March 2019 and could easily put a new system in place. There would be no cliff edge for British agriculture industries in finding labour because a scheme would be ready to operate from summer 2019.
British food and veg industries are not yet in crisis, but there are signs that the labour situation is getting tighter and we need to take that on board. The Government must take the necessary steps now to ensure we do not face a labour cliff edge in 2019. A sensible, proportionate seasonal agricultural workers scheme is essential to make sure British agriculture has enough workers. The Minister’s family has done much in the fruit and vegetable industry, so he understands the need for an availability of labour. As I said earlier, we also want to make sure our own labour market for our own workers is as flexible as it can be so that people are not worried about leaving benefits to get a seasonal job and then not being able to get on benefits again. That is an essential consideration.
If the Government were caught out, the consequences could be severe. We want more fruit and vegetables grown in this country—not less—and we want our businesses to thrive. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing what plans the Government have in place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gapes. I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on his timely report and the way that he chairs with distinction the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. We are almost certain he will be returned to his post and look forward to his being elevated once again to such a robust post.
I hate using the word “peak” when we describe phenomena or an event, but we are currently experiencing peak strawberry. It is the middle of July, Wimbledon is in full session and everybody across the country is enjoying that wonderful symbol of the British summer. It is great that people are consuming vast quantities of the great healthy produce that is produced the length and breadth of the whole of the United Kingdom. Some of my colleagues represent large areas that produce berry fruit and other great things that are a part of the seasonal agricultural scene right across the UK. However, it all pales into insignificance when compared with what we have in Perthshire: the finest soft berry fruit farming that can be experienced anywhere in the whole of the United Kingdom. Nothing comes close to the Perthshire strawberry and the Perthshire raspberry.
The hon. Gentleman is making some fine points, but I am afraid I cannot let that pass. It is clear that Kent is the garden of England, and although I am sure Scotland offers many great things, Kent is truly the home of the berry.
We will leave it at this: the hon. Gentleman and I have a difference of opinion about which British berries have superiority. Of course it is Perthshire berries. The town of Blairgowrie in my constituency is almost synonymous with the soft fruit industry, and particularly with strawberries and raspberries. Much of the heritage of east Perthshire—Strathmore and the Carse of Gowrie—is wound together with tales of the berry farmers and stories of luggies, cleeks and dreels.
The nature of berry farming has changed significantly since those days because of different cultivation methods, changes in the industry and, of course, the increasing demands of the major supermarkets, which have such an impact on the how soft fruit farmers must design their activities and businesses. Polytunnels are used in Perthshire. I represent the eighth or ninth largest constituency in the United Kingdom and, as I drive around at this time of year, it is covered with them. People enjoying the wonderful experience of driving through Perthshire may not find polytunnels its most attractive feature, but they help to make sure of the crop. The cropping period is now extended, and lasts from about April to the end of October. It is remarkable to be able to get a punnet of strawberries even before the Easter holidays, and still be able to enjoy some when the leaves are falling from the trees. That is what increased use of polytunnels has done, and we should welcome it.
What remains the same is the fact that the crop must be planted, maintained and harvested. When I was a young lad, that work was traditionally done by local people. The young Wishart would enjoy a summer holiday picking raspberries and strawberries. I would put them in my luggie and make sure I had a little bit of a supplement to my pocket money. That was a feature of life for many local people, but those days are long gone. Practically all the fruit is now lifted by people from the other side of Europe, on whom producers rely almost exclusively to get their crop in. That remains an important exercise, and it is crucial for us in Scotland, where the food and drink industry is our base export. Food and drink is running out of the door. Scottish food and drink is probably one of the biggest export industries of the whole UK.
I seem to remember that when I went strawberry picking as a young boy the strawberries were grown on the ground, and it was backbreaking work. Have the Perthshire berry growers adopted the same practices as in the midlands, where the fruit is grown in a substrate at waist height? Farmers appreciate that labour is valuable and that they must make good use of it. That hugely increases pickers’ productivity; but even having taken those important steps forward, we are still short of labour.
The hon. Gentleman is right and that is a good point. Going around polytunnels now, one can see that everything is raised. I am sure the hon. Gentleman respects and appreciates the fact that the work is labour-intensive, and there is no way of getting around that. Some of the producers and berry farmers in my constituency have considered all sorts of ingenious measures and machines to try to find other ways of doing things, but people are still left picking the crop from the plant. We must accept that that will continue to be a feature of the activity on berry farms.
There is huge concern about the future. Soft fruit farmers in my constituency are increasingly alarmed at the fact that there seems to be no strategy to allay concerns about the availability of labour. I was waiting for the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton to mention Brexit, because it is all about that, and the ending of freedom of movement. Getting rid of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme almost worked. I remember the days of seasonal agricultural workers and participated in several debates when the scheme was being cancelled. We were told it was not necessary any more, because we were all part of the European Union. The accession nations—the Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians who were traditionally part of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—were now part of the EU and could come in to take part in that activity. They cannot any more, because this clueless Brexit and the ending of the freedom of movement has ensured that it will not happen further.
Absolutely. I will come to that very point. The issue is time-limited and we must ensure that we get something in place. A feature of the Government’s approach to Brexit is the cluelessness at the heart of it: they fail to accept and recognise some of the consequences of going ahead in such folly, and the way it extends to agriculture—particularly seasonal agriculture. We are left high and dry because all the people whom we relied on to come and pick the fruit will now be limited by the daft ending of freedom of movement, and we will not be able to take advantage of it. That is why it is doubly important to cobble together some sort of scheme, so that farmers like those in my constituency and in North Norfolk are not left high and dry.
We know the difficulty. This month a report from the trade organisation British Summer Fruits predicted that the cost of strawberries and raspberries could soar by 50% if Brexit makes it harder for growers to recruit overseas. We heard earlier from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that, if the problem is not resolved, the crop will simply go unharvested and wither on the vine. Such decisions would be disastrous for Scotland’s food and drink sector and its worldwide reputation for quality produce. This is all about the Government’s immigration obsession, and the way the whole debate about Brexit seemed to be focused entirely on stopping freedom of movement. Protecting freedom of movement is vital for the Scottish agricultural sector, and EU workers are important to virtually all parts of the modern farming industry.
The wonderful James Hutton Institute is in my constituency, in the Carse of Gowrie, and it does great work on genetics to improve crops so that they are more resilient and pest-hardy. Most of that work is done by EU nationals. The scientists working in the James Hutton Institute come from across the EU. Thank you, Conservative Government: that will probably be ended almost immediately. The involvement of EU nationals goes from there right down to the fields, where people from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria pick the crop. We are totally dependent on freedom of movement to ensure that the whole sector, from science research institutes to the pickers, can depend on people from the EU. That makes it doubly important to get things together.
As things stand, there is a danger that the UK Government will abandon something that is good for Scotland—membership of the single market—to restrict something else that is good for it: freedom of movement. That is another example of the absurdity of this clueless hard Brexit, and of the case the Government make. It is a good demonstration of why the Government must think again and change their mind and approach.
I have heard something encouraging today. I have been to a couple of debates on this topic before, and, with all due respect to my Conservative friends, we usually hear from them—the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) today said the opposite—that local people can do the work instead, so we do not need European nationals, as if a tap can be turned on and we can somehow create a volley of people to come and do it. We know that that cannot happen. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire mentioned low unemployment. There is low unemployment in my constituency, too. Another thing about the soft fruit sector is that farms where seasonal agricultural work happens are in prosperous, rural and hard-to-reach areas. There is not a huge hinterland of people available to do the work. Thank goodness we are not hearing the usual nonsense from Conservative Members that we will just give the work to local people. We know that that is not possible and will not happen, and I am pleased we have got to that point.
We need to hear from the Minister that he will announce a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that it did not work too badly in the past. When I was a new Member of Parliament in 2001, it was still in operation. It was useful and helpful. I have been looking at the figures. Some 21,250 visas were issued in the last year of the scheme’s operation, for people who came to the UK for between five weeks and six months. As the National Farmers Union pointed out, there was a 98% return rate. All the concerns about immigration and people staying did not apply to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
It is worth pointing out the other benefits. One of the great pleasures and privileges of someone who has a constituency with soft fruit centres and berry-picking is to go to some of the cultural events. For example, in Perthshire, round about Blairgowrie, a number of the producers have ceilidhs and cultural evenings where people come in and speak. That is a great feature for young people—they are the brightest and the best from their countries, and they are coming across to experience the best of Scotland. They will leave Scotland with a favourable impression of our nation and hopefully at some point in the future will decide to come back for a vacation or a holiday. That is good for us—it is soft power at its very best, and it is something that we very much value as a feature of our community. It is good for the producer, it is good for the person that comes to harvest the fruit and it is good for the country. That is why we need a scheme as soon as possible.
I say to the Minister that the clock is ticking. Some 750 tonnes of Scottish soft-fruit production is hanging on the Brexit precipice. Autumn farmers need to start recruiting for next year, and there is no certainty about freedom of movement, the movement of labour or even a permit scheme to let workers into the country. Something will have to give.
Producers cannot plant what they cannot pick, so by next autumn, big decisions will have to be made, which could possibly involve ending soft fruit production in areas such as mine. The situation is absolutely urgent. If we do not go ahead, it will be disastrous for the fantastic produce that comes from my constituency, for Perthshire, for Scotland’s food and drink sector and for its worldwide reputation for quality produce. We could end up in a situation where, although we have a fantastic product, the summer shelves are stacked with foreign strawberries and raspberries, shipped into Scotland because we simply do not have the workers to pick what is hanging from the fruit trees in our own fields.
The solution lies in the hands of the Government. The rest of us can only savour those delicious Scottish strawberries and raspberries for as long as we can. We want to continue to enjoy them. I plead with the Minister to get a scheme together, give security to our producers and growers and ensure that everybody can continue to enjoy the wonderful symbol of our summer that is our strawberries and our raspberries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this debate. As he said, it is very timely. I congratulate him also on his work on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
I begin by pointing out to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) a couple of macro facts. There was a vote of 17.4 million last year to leave. I know his party do not like it, but we are going to leave. One of the issues was taking back control of our borders. The figures are pretty startling. Last week, our population hit a record number of 65.5 million. The Department for Communities and Local Government reckons that we need to provide housing for 243,000 new households every year for the next 22 years, which means building a new home every five minutes, night and day, to cope with the increase in population. That is one macro fact that Members have to recognise.
I will just finish making the point, because I think it is relevant.
The other fact is that, far from banging on about Brexit, it is great pleasure to state that the economies in eastern Europe are really flying. Hungary is growing at about 4% and there has been a huge increase in wages. They have risen by 15% this year, and by 25% for skilled workers, and there has been a 20% rise in the Hungarian forint. Quite soon, there will not be wage differentials between Hungarian workers and western European workers.
There are similar major strategic changes in Poland. The economy there is flying, at 4% a year. Significantly, a 250,000 annual drop in the working-age population is putting pressure on Poland, which is already opening up visa schemes for 1.3 million temporary workers from Ukraine. We have to recognise that. It is great news that in Romania, which is very relevant to our discussions, economic growth is running at 5%. Civil servants have had a 25% pay rise. Their wages are increasing and their jobless rate is not far below Scandinavian levels. Those macro elements are completely out of the discussion on Brexit.
Where I would agree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is that the situation is a real problem. I saw it coming when I worked in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it has only got worse. The hon. Gentleman cited a survey from British Summer Fruits. It sees prices rising 35% to 50% because of labour shortages. The BBC did a survey that said that 78% of growers believed that recruitment has been harder. We are all hearing this, and it is not just in the fruit and veg industry; we are hearing it from those who work in abattoirs and those who work in tourism. Many rural industries are being affected.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about “taking back control”. He must have sympathy with the point I raised earlier: in Scotland we do not have control, because we have a system that is very centralised in London, deciding what we need and do not need, particularly if we want to take people from the Philippines. Switzerland, for example, can run a scheme where the 26 cantons control half the visas and the other half are controlled centrally. Is it not time that the UK changed its approach so that places such as Scotland can control their own destiny?
The hon. Gentleman’s party lost the argument when it lost the referendum. Scotland is a firm part of the UK. I think the control of borders is a policy area that should be in the hands of the nation state.
To get back to my not being surprised, the most angry people I met when I was the Secretary of State at DEFRA were the fruit farmers in Herefordshire, Somerset or Kent. I remember clearly going on a trip with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) to her constituency in Essex, where there is a wonderful, world-famous fruit packing, picking and jam-making company called Tiptree, which we probably all see on virtually every plane we fly on. That company was having real problems at that time with getting really skilled people to pick fruit. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, the picking has to be done at the right moment. There is a critical moment when fruit and veg has to be picked, or it is lost.
At that time, SAWS had already been stopped. From memory, before they had open access, the scheme brought in 21,250 Romanians and Bulgarians, who came to targeted destinations, with proper accommodation, good catering facilities, proper medical facilities and so on. They also had the requirement to go home at the end of the season. I remember that Tiptree was really struggling. I talked to various representatives of the industries at that time and we looked at all sorts of alternatives, some of which have been completely misrepresented in the press. There was talk of reviving the old tradition of urban citizens taking working holidays in the countryside, and seeing whether pensioners could do it. We looked at students. I worked closely with the Department for Work and Pensions. None of those options was really practical. We looked at them, but they were not really going anywhere.
The only real long-term solution, if we are to use domestic labour—the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made the right point when he said we all represent rural constituencies with very low rates of unemployment—is automation. Happily, near me, we have the University of Harper Adams, which is doing fantastic work on automated machinery. It will produce a crop in a field this year where a human being will not have entered that field from the moment that it was first touched. However, that is down the line. For the moment, I think we all agree that we have a real problem with our fruit and veg industry, and increasingly with our tourism industry, in finding labour.
We have the opportunity, and I look forward to it, once we get control back of our borders, to look well outside Europe for labour—we will have to. We are going to find—I have just cited the figures—that the Romanians and the Poles are probably going to stay at home. We had better wake up to that. It is absolutely vital that the Minister is working hard at DEFRA on a replacement seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
I would ask him not to do a straight replacement. I will cite one example, New Zealand, which has been running a recognised seasonal employers scheme since 2007. The World Bank has described it as a model for best practice. It has really worked; it has eased labour shortages in the horticulture sector, and the viticulture sector, which is growing very fast of course in New Zealand, while minimising the risks of overstaying and undercutting or displacement of local labour by immigrant labour.
There is a really strong focus in New Zealand on “New Zealand first” in the labour market. Our old seasonal agricultural workers scheme did not incorporate a resident labour market test, unlike the RSE, nor did it include measures of the type included in the RSE to prevent illegal overstaying. That is a really important difference. The number has increased from 8,000 to 10,800 Pacific islanders this year. They are provided places to work during the agricultural season, and mainly come from islands such as Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, for seven to 11 months.
The conditions are pretty strict. An employer must first register as a recognised seasonal employer. That is stronger than what we had: under our old legislation, SAWS, registration with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was optional for sole operators and compulsory only for multiple operators, depending on their recruitment arrangements.
New Zealand employers are required to take a number of reasonable steps to recruit New Zealanders to available positions. The language is pretty fierce. The main document given to employers says that they are required to take
“all reasonable steps to recruit and train New Zealanders for available positions before seeking to recruit non-New Zealand citizen or resident workers”,
and that they must
“not use a recruitment agent who seeks a commission from workers in exchange for securing an employment agreement, to recruit non-New Zealand citizen or resident workers”.
That is much more strict and puts more pressure on the employer than what we had.
The other really important thing is that employers are required to pay the market rate for work so there is no competition with domestic labour. “New Zealand first” really does help. Under the SAWS arrangements, SAWS operators were subject to inspection by the GLA and what was then the UK Border Agency. That included their pay systems. In New Zealand, farms are inspected, mainly by the operator, to ensure appropriate standards of health and safety, which is the main focus. Very importantly, employers must pay half the worker’s return air fare between New Zealand and their country of origin. Under SAWS, there was no requirement to pay any portion of the worker’s return air fare.
In New Zealand, employers must bear the cost of repatriating workers if they become illegal. Again, that was not the case under SAWS, although fines were eventually introduced. Importantly, workers under RSE are allowed to be re-employed in subsequent years, and there is a very strong record of their coming back, which I think is a real advantage for the disadvantaged economies from which they come. Although seasonal agricultural schemes around the world seem to use either a resident labour market test as a form of flow control, or a quota, New Zealand uses both. The policy has contributed very much to its development objectives with its Pacific neighbours.
I recommend that the Minister read the report by Professor Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, on New Zealand’s recognised seasonal employers scheme. Let me pick a key quote from a 2010 survey by the New Zealand Department of Labour, which is pretty festive about this. It said:
“Overall, the RSE Policy has achieved what it set out to do. The policy has provided employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries with access to a reliable and stable seasonal workforce. The labour supply crises of previous years have been avoided and employers can now plan and manage their businesses with confidence. As the policy enters its third year”—
this was back in 2010—
“there are indications many employers are now also benefiting from skilled labour as workers return for subsequent seasons. Significant productivity gains were reported in the second season, together with improvements in harvest quality.”
As I just said,
“Alongside the employer ‘wins’, Pacific workers and three Pacific states have benefited financially from participating in the RSE Policy.”
A World Bank report said:
“We find per capita incomes of households participating in the RSE to have increased by over 30% relative to the comparison groups in both countries.”
Another report found that 50% of workers returned in the next season, and that most—86.9%—returned to the same employer.
Australia’s seasonal worker programme, which I strongly recommend the Minister check out, is a similar scheme. It brings in 12,000 workers from Pacific islands. Workers come to Australia for between 14 weeks and six months. Employers must be approved by the Government; provide the Government with evidence of labour market testing; organise flights, transport and accommodation for workers; ensure a minimum of 30 hours of labour a week; and ensure that workers depart on the expiration of their visa.
It is vital that we look at introducing a replacement for SAWS. It should be tapered and temporary, and should ensure that British workers are not displaced or undercut by migrant workers while we wait for technology to catch up—that is the real future for domestic workers. Any replacement of SAWS must include a resident labour market test and be accompanied by robust safeguards against illegal overstaying. We need to start planning that now because, given that prosperity is improving in eastern Europe, as Members have said, workers are not going to come from there. We will happily have the whole world to choose from. Hopefully, people will come here and pick our wonderful soft fruit and vegetables.
The deadline is 4 pm, so we will work towards that.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for introducing the debate. I wish him well in his quest to be re-elected as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Without disrespect to any other hon. Member who runs for it, I have no doubt that no one else would fit the job so well and perform it with such ability. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I have already given him my commitment. I wholeheartedly support him in underlining the importance of seasonal agricultural workers to our agri-food industry.
I spoke on this subject at length in this Chamber in November. Some Members will be pleased to know that I do not intend to speak for too long today, since the Chair has asked us not to. However, the topic bears highlighting once again because of the urgency of the situation, which other right hon. and hon. Members have referred to. The agri-food industry is important not only in my constituency, but to every one of us across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
My constituency has a very strong agri-food sector. Our employers include Mash Direct and Willowbrook Foods, which have about 60% and 40% European labour, respectively. There is a very clear need for a system that works. I can say without fear of contradiction that Strangford is not only a beautiful constituency, but one that provides a lot of cereals, vegetables, beef, lamb and poultry. Agriculture is a very important part of our psyche in my constituency.
I hark back to the labour shortage in 2008, during which horticulture 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. There is no way we can go back to those hard, problematic times, which I know the Minister will have been aware of. The industry contributes some £3 billion to the UK economy and employs about 37,000 people on a permanent basis. The loss of workers and of the ability to work the land would have a massive effect on the local economy—I can vouch for that, as can other hon. Members present—as well as the UK-wide economy. The time is past due to stabilise the industry.
There is no question of Brexit not taking place. There are people who continuously throw up obstacles, negativity and problems, but let us look at it positively. The right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) outlined clearly the positivity that we need. Within this debate, we all have some thoughts to put to the Minister, and I know he will respond to them very positively. It is imperative that we take steps now to ensure that the worker scheme is open to all—Europeans and non-Europeans alike—who have a skill that they wish to use to fill a space. We have such gaps, undoubtedly; the figures indicate that.
I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, which is the sister union of the National Farmers Union, and as a landowner. The NFU and the UFU do a marvellous job on behalf of all farmers, but they also have some very good insurance premiums, which is one reason for our membership over the years. The NFU’s 2015 end-of-season labour survey has shown that, for the first time since the seasonal agricultural workers scheme closed, 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, while 66% predicted that the situation will worsen by 2018. That is the crux of the problem: 2018 is six months away, so this is no longer a long-term outlook, but an impending crisis that demands action as a matter of urgency.
I have every faith that the Government—particularly the Minister, whom I know personally from our involvement with fishing and other farming issues—will respond with the message we need to hear. I ask him to give us, either in his reply or, if he cannot get to it today, in a letter to interested Members, an outline of how the shortfall can be met. I also underline the need to address the issue that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) raised about fishermen, although I know that it is not the subject of this debate.
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, in which 47% of labour providers said they were unable to meet the demands of the sectors they were supplying.
I am conscious of time, so I will conclude. The NFU says that the industry currently uses about 80,000 seasonal workers. That figure is expected to rise to 95,000 by 2021. Brexit will bring opportunities, and we need seasonal workers for that. In an industry that is worth some £108 billion to the nation’s economy, there is a need for more opportunities and stability for those who wish to help where help is greatly needed.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to support my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) in bringing up this topic and ensuring it stays on the agenda. This is very much a concern for farmers in my constituency, day after day, and right now, because it is peak fruit-picking season, particularly for strawberries and berries, as other Members have said.
It is good to see such a turnout on a Thursday afternoon. I am hopeful that all eligible Members here will come and join the APPG for fruit and vegetable farmers when it is reconstituted shortly, so that we have a Back-Bench voice for fruit and veg farmers. All of us are here because we have farmers in our constituencies who badly need seasonal workers. There are at least 5,000 seasonal workers, and possibly up to 10,000, in my constituency, which is a significant share of the UK’s annual requirement of 80,000 seasonal workers. One farm alone employs nearly 1,000 seasonal workers.
On the other hand, unemployment is very low in my area, with only about 700 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. There is no way that local labour can plug that gap, so we need workers from outside the area to help pick the fruit. I hear consistently from farmers in my constituency that it is becoming an increasing challenge to recruit and retain the workers they need on their farms.
One issue is the dropping return rate. Usually, a significant proportion—it is sometimes 80% to 90%—of workers return every year. The important thing is that they are experienced workers, so they are extremely valuable and productive. They are often paid well above the minimum wage. However, the return rate of experienced workers is dropping, and some workers leave early. We now have a wonderful extended season, thanks to the polytunnels to which the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) referred. We need workers to stay for as much of the season as possible, but they are tending to leave early.
The falling pound is clearly a factor in the shortfall. We also know that those workers are skilled, experienced and in demand across Europe—they have choices as to where they work, and some are not choosing to come to us. Another factor is uncertainty about the opportunities they will have to come here in future thanks to Brexit. Some are genuinely uncertain about how welcome they are. Although the Government have tried to put out positive messages about how we welcome people from other countries coming to work here in the UK, there is an increased level of hate crime against immigrant workers, so there is still a sense of them not being welcome. It is vital that that is addressed because it is a factor.
There are things that fruit farmers can do and are doing to address the challenges. Some farmers have improved the accommodation they offer to workers, which is a very good reaction to the challenge. There are also some helpful factors now that mean most of the fruit is being picked. One is the willingness of workers to do overtime, and the other is the unusual late frost we had, which means other jobs on the farm do not have to be done. Unfortunately, some fruit—for example, plums, in my constituency—suffered in the frost and does not need to be picked, so workers can be used for other crops.
At the moment, at least in my constituency, fruit is being picked, but there is real concern that there could be a problem, not only next year and the year after but even as soon as the apple harvest, with ensuring that fruit comes in from the fields. If that happens, prices will rise. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to the possibility of a 50% increase in prices. That would mean that a punnet of strawberries that currently costs £2 would go up to £3. That is a material price rise, and I am worried that if it is passed on to the consumer, British consumers might be put off buying British fruit. We need British consumers to buy good British products.
Will the Minister look closely at this situation sooner rather than later and work with his Home Office colleagues—particularly the Immigration Minister? It is vital that something is done sooner rather than later. We must ensure that there is some way for experienced EU farm workers to come to the UK to help after Brexit. It is vital that there is clarity, that transitional arrangements are put in place as required, and that some kind of seasonal agricultural workers scheme that allows us to recruit both beyond the EU and within it is introduced sooner rather than later, so that we can keep having great British fruit for the Great British public.
I will be very brief, Mr Gapes. I agree with everything I have heard from my hon. Friends on the Government Benches. More than 20,000 fruit pickers come into my constituency alone every year, and the people who employ them constantly make this plea: if there is a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, the people in it must stay working on the farms that work hard to apply for them to come. There must be some degree of stickiness to stop those people disappearing into the local economy and doing other things. The administration of such a visa will be expensive. The whole purpose of all this is to ensure that businesses are competitive, so it is critical that we keep the costs of any scheme down and ensure that the people who apply come and work for the people who go to the trouble of hiring them.
I, too, shall be brief. I would like to emphasise the science element of agriculture. I am pleased to represent East Malling Research, which, as we all know, produced the Malling root stock from which most apples are grown—probably even some in Perthshire. That investment in British agriculture, which has been shared with the world, is essential. When we talk about seasonal agricultural workers, we need to think wider than simply soft fruits. But we are of course in Wimbledon season. Hugh Lowe Farms, which I am proud to represent, produces all the strawberries for Wimbledon and, I am sure, similar competitions around the United Kingdom. Strawberries may be drawn from Perthshire, but the pinnacle of the British summer is drawn from Kent.
Most seasonal agricultural workers are highly skilled. In Kent, many are paid well over the national living wage. We are not talking about a low-wage economy; this is hard work that is properly rewarded. However, we are already seeing some problems. One of the people I have the privilege of representing, Mrs Vivienne Tanna of Orchard Lodge farm, wrote to me to point out the amount of pears and other fruit that she is finding it hard to pick, for exactly the reasons that many Members highlighted.
I finish with a simple question to the Minister, whom I am glad to see back in his place. When we last debated this matter, in October 2015, we acknowledged huge changes to such things as table-top picking, and he expressed confidence that farming would cope with whatever challenges it faced. I hope that he is as confident today, and I hope that he listens not just to Government Members but to all voices in the House to find innovative solutions and ideas that ensure that the premier fruit in the world, whether it is from Perthshire or from Kent, is picked and sold, because it really is one of the great exports of our country.
I am pleased to wind up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. It has been a good debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing it.
We know a seasonal agricultural workers scheme is important and necessary, and the feeling from all sides of the House is that it is a no-brainer. There is complete agreement across all regions and nations of the United Kingdom that it has to come into being. In many ways, this will probably be the first of many Brexit damage-reduction measures that we will debate in the next few years. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, there is not yet a crisis, but it is quite clear that acute pains are being felt, and that a seasonal agricultural workers scheme is essential.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) effortlessly ranged in his speech from soft fruit to soft power, and he was absolutely certain that his constituency produces the best berries in the United Kingdom. I am pretty sure it produces the best berries in Scotland, which probably makes them the best berries in all of Europe; let us not constrain ourselves to the white cliffs of Dover, let us look internationally. He made a very good point about the changing nature of the berry-farming industry, with the planting, maintaining and harvesting of the fruits all having changed, and with polytunnels enabling him to enjoy those fine raspberries and strawberries before Easter and well beyond Halloween. He is lucky to represent such a fine area.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) echoed my hon. Friend’s point about prices rising by up to 50%. That will affect an awful lot of people. There are concerns among many of the large retailers, such as Sainsbury’s, that the average shopping basket will rise in price by about 7%, even excluding changes in currency. Soft fruits are healthy foods that people should be eating. People are asked to eat them for their health in Finland, as they seem to have the effect of reducing heart attacks and other such problems. For them to become more expensive is surely not to the benefit of our society as a whole, and is certainly not to the benefit of the farmers.
Keeping with the “north” theme, I obviously disagreed with the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) on his points about Scotland, because Scotland has voted twice to stay in the European Union, but I agreed with him on much else. He pointed out that we have certainly seen an improving economy in eastern Europe, which will be significant. Mechanisation will have to come along at some point; it is certainly happening in fishing industries. Anybody who has been to Iceland will have seen that what was once done on fishing boats by man is now done by machines. The population of Iceland working in fisheries was once 25% but is now 4.3%. Mechanisation is always the way ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman also touched on conditions for workers, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent. These are experienced and skilled workers who we must value. I expect that, under any scheme, those workers would have access to whichever of the four national health services they might need to access across the United Kingdom. He also very informatively touched on the recognised seasonal employer scheme in New Zealand. I googled it as he spoke, and found a good article on it. The news hot from New Zealand is that the scheme will be expanded to cover tourism and fisheries, which is very welcome news. I certainly hope that it will be considered for our fisheries industry, because we definitely need people in that industry. We cannot have the obstinacy we have had from the Home Office, which is terrified of stupid headlines in the Daily Mail about migrants, which has led to fishing boats being tied and not catching fish—affecting processing jobs on land in my constituency.
The New Zealanders are very much aware that the scheme is a win-win situation. They take workers mainly from Pacific countries and they fully realise that much of the money that those workers earn will go back to their home countries, which will help people to develop and advance there. New Zealand also wants those workers to come back, because they have become experienced workers over time, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent also mentioned.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also mentioned that Northern Ireland shared Scotland’s and England’s view on this. It is vital that that is recognised. Keeping with the “north” theme as ever, the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) gave a good speech on the amount of workers that come into his constituency, which again shows just how important and big an issue this is. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent touched on an important point about the welcome that people get when they come here. They are experienced workers. We should abhor the very idea of hate crime against them, and fight against it happening or being encouraged—even derogatory talk about migrants should be stopped. In Scotland, happily, we have seen a fall in hate crime since the Brexit referendum of June last year.
The UK Government, by pursuing a narrow-minded approach, are making decisions on migration that are detrimental to Scotland. I hope that in this first Brexit damage-reduction measure we will see something useful and helpful. I do not see why the UK, in contrast to countries such as Switzerland, has to have a centralised policy—in Scotland, we have very different demographics from the rest of the UK.
About 14,000 non-UK seasonal workers come back and forth to Scotland, most of them employed in the soft fruit and vegetable sectors in the summer and autumn. That underpins our £14 billion food and drink industry, which is one of the fastest growing and most successful sectors in Scotland. We know what we need to do for Scotland; it is terrible—frustrating—for us to have to inform and often educate a UK Minister that something beneficial to Scotland might also be beneficial to the Exchequer, with the taxes and revenues of increased economic activity.
One of the benefits that I had not seen or thought of much before was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), which is the cultural benefits naturally and normally brought about by such exchanges of people. When we talk about things like this, we sometimes think in economic tramlines, instead of about the human beings involved and the welcome cultural exchanges.
To round up, the need for a scheme is absolutely pressing. The Minister must act and the Home Office must be welcoming of such a scheme—we can have no obstruction from them. We have to widen it out to other sectors such as tourism and, certainly, fisheries. It is something that makes total sense and has been a no-brainer as far as this debate is concerned. All participants have been supportive of it, and I look forward to seeing such a scheme in the near future.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
I congratulate the Select Committee. It is good to know that it was in safe hands. Some of us left some time ago, but it is still turning out good reports.
I welcome the Minister to his place. My summing up could be very short, because if he intimates that he has accepted all the submissions about how we need a new SAWS by nodding at me, I will sit down and think the debate has been a great success. However, I do not want to steal his thunder and perhaps he wants to say that himself.
Whether the decision taken in 2013 was by the Minister, his predecessor or the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the reality is that we have to revisit it and we have to ensure that we get another SAWS. The original scheme was of course one of the achievements of the 1945 Labour Government—one that perhaps most people do not know about but was nevertheless important, because it tried to provide some stability in the agricultural industry and, more particularly, a strategy whereby we could recruit people when we needed them.
The report is a good one and, as I have said, I concur with it and with the points made by right hon. and hon. Members. I will add two caveats on where they might have made some additional points. First, among the reasons why people from this country do not necessarily go to pick fruit nowadays, I would add the housing situation. If someone lives in a council house or even rents privately, it is difficult to leave that property and go to a different part of the country, even if accommodation is provided there, given secure tenancy arrangements, the fact that we do not want empty properties even for a short time and the pressure on housing being what it is today.
My other point is about a misnomer: the scheme is not only for seasonal agricultural workers. For some industries, in particular the dairy industry, it is a year-round scheme. In my part of the world, we have a number of Polish workers who come for a period of years. It is not only about people who come for months; sometimes they come for longer. We need flexibility built into the scheme, whatever form it takes.
To give the Minister the maximum time to respond to this very good debate, I will ask a series of questions based on where I think we ought to be moving, and how we might be able to help the Government travel in that direction. The first and most obvious question is what research has been undertaken on the impact of Brexit, whether it will lead to a substantial reduction in the number of migrant workers and how that will play out for agriculture. In particular, I know that the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to review the issue. It would be good to know that DEFRA will have some input into determining the specific implications for agriculture, particularly horticulture.
My second question is about opportunity and where people might come from if not the EU. What research has been undertaken and what discussions had with other Governments to open up opportunities for people to come work here if they can no longer do so as a result of the Brexit changes? Thirdly, I am glad automation was mentioned; it appears in the Select Committee report. The difficulty is that it is a bit like—dare I say it—a cure for bovine TB; it is always 10 years away, as some of us will know. What research has been done on how automation might play a part? One body that is undervalued and ignored in many respects is Lantra, which has responsibility for providing skills training for those on the land. What discussions have the Government had with Lantra to bring forward skills training so that we might have a larger resident population interested in taking on such roles?
The main tenor of this debate has been that we need to go back to where we were, although maybe not to exactly the same places. It is useful for the Minister to at least acknowledge that things may have been misjudged back in 2013, but we have learned a lesson and things must be dealt with. Although one does not use the word “crisis”, the possibility of leaving fruit on the ground sounds as near a crisis to me as it is possible to get. To be fair to him, he has form on this matter. He intimated in an interview in Farmers Weekly:
“Longer term, we will be looking at issues such as work permits and how we can ensure we have the labour we need—while also having an approach that is very much around controlled migration.”
What will that work permit scheme be? Maybe it is being considered in outline at present, but we certainly need some more detail. When is it likely to be introduced? Could it be introduced before Brexit or shortly after? We need to know how people will be able to come to work on the land.
This is an important industry. The whole Brexit debate will centre on aspects of agriculture, partly because £3 billion is a huge sum relative to other industries in terms of what will happen when we leave the EU. It would be good to know, therefore, what we can expect in terms of moneys. I accept that we are looking ahead, but some of the moneys would have to go towards appropriate provision of labour, not just in terms of SAWS but to get people to go on the land, because, as everyone would agree, we want a vibrant agricultural industry in this country. We are proud of it, and we need food security, but we must also recognise that there will be a huge economic burden if we do not produce more of our own food. In a previous incarnation, some of us spent a lot of time trying to argue that that was both necessary and helpful for the British economy. It would be good to know how this issue fits into the wider Brexit strategy, given that there is already a problem, and the problem will get worse before it gets better. If we do not grasp the nettle now, the situation could spiral out of control.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), back to this place and back to this wonderful brief, DEFRA, where we have so many complex issues to deal with.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate to discuss the important work that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has done on migrant labour as it applies to agriculture. It published its report in April, getting it out just before the general election, and it was a pleasure to give evidence to its inquiry earlier this year, alongside the Home Office Minister who is now the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill).
I completely recognise that the Committee has received a number of strong representations from the farming industry. I also understand that, as a number of hon. Members have said, part of the backdrop to the debate is a general apprehension in the farming industry about what might happen once we have left the European Union and what arrangements might be put in place to replace the free movement of labour that it currently enjoys.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton will be aware that the Home Office leads on this issue. He will also be aware that I have personal experience in this industry and understand the challenge well. The challenge has been set out by a number of hon. Members, particularly those with fruit producers in their constituencies, including my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). All those constituencies rely heavily on migrant labour.
I ran a soft fruit enterprise for the best part of 10 years. We used to employ 250 staff. Our farm in Cornwall was nicknamed locally “the United Nations”, because we had people from many different countries. We had staff from EU countries, but also some staff from Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, who were here on the then holiday work visa scheme. I know what it is like, and I know what it is like to have to close the gate on a field of strawberries that cannot be harvested because there are not enough staff.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton pointed out, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has been around since 1945. It was brought in after the war to ensure that we could provide our farms with the workers that they needed. However, as the EU expanded, the need for the scheme decreased. From 1990, it was subject to quotas, and in 1990 the quota was set at 5,500 places. It went up to about 25,000 by 2003, was reduced again in 2005 after the big accession of a number of new member states whose people were able to come here and work, and was put back up to 21,250 in 2008.
In 2005, the Home Office announced its intention to phase out, over time, existing quota-based low-skilled migration schemes, including SAWS, because labour needs at low skill levels were deemed to be capable of being met from an expanded EU labour market. From 2008 to 2013, SAWS was open only to nationals of Bulgaria and Romania, while transitional restrictions on their labour market access remained in place. The decision to end SAWS was informed by advice from the Migration Advisory Committee, which considered there to be no immediate shortfall in the supply of seasonal labour, although at the point at which it gave that advice, it conceded that in the medium to long term, which it identified as being possibly sometime after 2017, shortages could arise and we should therefore keep matters under review, which we have.
DEFRA established the SAWS transition working group. That met as recently as 6 March this year and discussed some of these issues of anecdotal reports that things are getting harder. Its conclusion in the March meeting, which I will come on to in more detail, was that this was a challenging situation but not a crisis.
My hon. Friend cast some doubt on the figures used by the former Home Office Minister and suggested they were out of date. That is unfair because the figures are clear and correct. The Office for National Statistics figures for January to March 2017 show that the number of EU nationals working in the UK was up by 171,000 to a total of 2.32 million. We also know that around 350,000 EU nationals work in the food chain.
The figures are right, but I agree and concede that they are migration figures. We are talking about something slightly different—seasonal migration, which does not show up in those figures. Seasonal migration is for those who come here for short periods—typically six months —and then return home for part of the year. Estimates of the number of people who come here as seasonal migrant workers and return home every year range from 67,000 to 80,000.
When the SAWS transition group met on 6 March, it discussed the reason for this anecdotal reporting of a tightening in that labour market, and a number of possible reasons were advanced. First, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, the weakening of the pound against the euro means that it is less attractive to come here and work, particularly if people are sending money back home. Secondly, it was pointed out that there have been changes to child benefit entitlement in Poland, which means fewer people from Poland are coming to the UK. Thirdly, Bulgaria has been taking steps to encourage its workforce to stay and work there, which is also thought to be a factor. A number of factors may have had an impact on seasonal migrant workers, even though we know that net migration from the EU has continued to rise.
A number of hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, asked what research we are doing. The EFRA Committee’s report asked us to review things before the end of the year. I have asked officials to continue to monitor the situation closely, given the reports we are getting. In fact, they have a meeting tomorrow with some of the employment providers and the NFU. The purpose of the meeting is to establish what data we need to come back from the industry and under what timescale they are able to provide it. Having established that, we have at the earliest opportunity to convene another formal meeting of the SAWS transition group to review the data. It is very important that we are able to review the data across the whole of 2017.
I thank the Minister very much for that thoughtful and good response. We can collect all these data, but if we see a tightening in the labour market, are we able to put a SAWS arrangement in place for next year? This is the bit I worry about. The Government say they can act fast, but some of the previous fast actions have taken longer than six months—dare I say?—and I am a little concerned. I hope we can be swift of foot. I am not making a party political point, just a point for the Government.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Home Office leads on this area. He will also be aware that our colleague, the then Immigration Minister, said that he believed it could stand up a SAWS scheme within five to six months. I understand that it would require a statutory instrument, because it is not the case that the SAWS scheme is dormant and reduced to zero. In secondary legislation, the SAWS scheme was discontinued when we passed the legislation allowing the accession and ending of the transitional arrangements for Romania and Bulgaria. I believe it needs secondary legislation, and it would be a matter for the Home Office. My hon. Friend’s Committee heard what the Home Office Minister had to say on that.
There is a difference across the year and between sectors. A number of hon. Members have used the term “peak strawberry”. We know that the third quarter—that is, from July to September—is always the period when demand for seasonal labour is highest and the most important quarter to watch. In other parts of the year the pressure is lower, which can mean that different sectors are affected differently. It means, for instance, that the soft fruit sector reports the greatest problems.
Earlier today I spoke to a farmer I know, a daffodil grower in Cornwall, who employs more than 1,200 seasonal staff, predominantly from Romania and Bulgaria. They reported to me that they did not have any problems at all and actually want to increase the number of seasonal staff. They are looking at Bulgaria, a very large country, and working with jobcentres there. They are not reporting any difficulty in getting the staff they need. Of course, this is the daffodil industry during the first quarter, when competition for labour tends to be low, so I appreciate that it is different for some others. I also mentioned exchange rates, and they pointed out that it is not a big issue for them because although the exchange rate is down, it is roughly back to the levels it was in 2010-11. Exchange rates do go up and down and businesses have to plan for that.
I want to talk a bit about the context of the EU, which the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) raised. Obviously, while we are in the EU, nothing changes. We still have free movement. I understand, however, that people want clarity about what will happen after we leave, and that is part of the backdrop, which the Government understand. While we want to have controlled migration, we are very clear that we are not pulling up the drawbridge. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), asked about research. In addition to the work being done by the SAWS transition group convened by DEFRA, the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to look at the UK labour market and our reliance on EU migrant labour across sectors. That will include looking at the SAWS.
I am sorry but I am running out time and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton time to respond.
Finally, I want to touch on some of the points made in the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) raised the New Zealand and Australian schemes. I will indeed read Professor Alan Winters’s report, which he highlighted. We have been told by Concordia, one of the labour providers, that it has managed to improve recruitment rates by offering travel and transport to help people to get here.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has a lot of agriculture in his constituency and I take his points on board. The Northern Ireland poultry sector is very large. It is less about seasonal labour there, and more often about permanent labour. I hope the Prime Minister’s words about settled status will therefore give him reassurance.
My hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) talked about a number of growers in their constituencies that I know and remember from my time in the industry. Coming back to the point raised, it is the case that there is an opportunity in the soft fruit sector. It has managed to spread the season with polytunnels to stagger the crop so that there are fewer peaks. A lot of very good work has been done on plant breeding so that they can increase the average size of the fruit, reducing their picking costs. A new variety called Centenary, which is just on market, is much more consistent in the size of the fruit. As someone who ran a soft fruit operation, I know that the overall size of the fruit is the key determinant of the cost of picking.
In conclusion, we have had a very interesting debate. These are very important issues. I reassure the House that our SAWS transition group is looking closely at all of them, and that the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to do a major piece of work in this area.
I thank the Minister very much for summing up, and thank the shadow Minister. I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil).
I again welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). It is good to see him here. He made some interesting points regarding how the flexibility of labour in this country has something to do with some of the fixed-term tenancies in housing. That is interesting to put into the mix, because we need more home-grown labour.
I thank the Minister very much for his summing up. He is a man who actually knows the industry and what is happening. He knows that, with perishable vegetables and fruits, we need that labour and we need it now. What I will say to him, as would be expected, is that the Select Committee has done this report and realises that the labour situation is just about okay at the moment, but will follow what the Government are doing. Naturally, we will call the Government to account to ensure that there is a scheme in place when we need it. Otherwise, those fruits and vegetables will go to waste. We want more great fruit and vegetables. Colleagues from across the country decided that their counties and countries were the best for producing fruit, but we can absolutely agree that British fruit and vegetables are great; that we want to grow more of them; that we very much want the labour, from either home or abroad, to pick it; and that we have to ensure the labour is available.
I thank the Minister, the shadow Ministers and all Members for contributing, and you, Mr Gapes, for chairing.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).