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Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 12 February 2019

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

I represent a particularly urban part of one of the UK’s biggest cities, so why do I want to talk about agriculture? That is because the issue, as much as it is about food and food security, especially after Brexit, is about slavery.

Since my election in 2017, I have been proud to play my part in highlighting, combating and working to eradicate the appalling scourge of modern slavery. I work alongside Members from all parties on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, hon. Friends from the Co-operative party, colleagues from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and friends at FLEX—Focus on Labour Exploitation—the Human Trafficking Foundation and the rights lab at my alma mater, the University of Nottingham. I have been proud to use my place in the House of Commons to do so.

I am joined in the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the chair of our all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery. We will continue to raise the issue, because slavery is a disease, pure and simple. It is much more widespread than people would ever countenance, it is appalling and it impacts on and blights lives throughout our communities, but all too often it is hidden from view by a deadly combination of fear, shame and circumstance.

Nevertheless, despite the scale of the challenge, I remain confident that we can achieve the goal of stamping modern slavery out in its totality by 2030. That will necessitate identifying, challenging and eradicating sources of slavery at home and abroad. It is also vital that, as we fight existing sources of slavery, we do not unwittingly create new opportunities through decisions that we make. That is why I am in the Chamber today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the immense amount of work that he and our hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) do on modern slavery and preventing it in this country. Does he agree that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme proposed by the Government could, because of the way it is set out, create greater opportunities for modern slavery to exist, and that one way to tackle that properly would be to ensure that every worker brought into the UK under a seasonal scheme is given access to a trade union, and clear and comprehensive knowledge of what their rights are and how to enforce them?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his commitment to this agenda. I share his view, and it will not surprise him to hear that I will address that shortly. As he said, it is vital that we do not inadvertently create new opportunities.

As formulated, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, or SAWS, presents a significant risk of creating slavery. In theory, SAWS offers fruit and vegetable farmers a route to alleviate labour shortages during peak production periods by employing migrant workers for up to six months—but that is a tale as old as time, frankly. The pilot will start this spring and run until the end of 2020. For migrant workers, it represents a chance to improve their lives, but it carries the risk of workers being treated as a disposable asset, creating a recipe for exploitation.

My constituency has a large agri-food sector, which has a real need for agricultural workers coming in to bring in the vegetables so that the factories can process them, selling them throughout the United Kingdom and further afield. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need some sort of scheme in place to provide that important protection and, in doing so, enable the factories in my constituency and others to do the job that they want to do and export their products?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. After Brexit, we have a chance to reform our migration system, but we have to ensure that we still meet the needs of our growing industries. I am about to highlight the fact that the soft fruit production industry has doubled in size over the past two decades. We have to move and to keep pace with that, building in the regulation to make things work.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He is right to express legitimate and long-standing concerns about modern-day slavery. Wilkin & Sons is an outstanding soft fruit production company and manufacturer in my constituency. Does he agree that other businesses, and in fact the Government, could learn best practice from how such businesses have conducted their own seasonal agricultural workers schemes in the past?

I very much recognise what the right hon. Lady is saying. Only this morning, during Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions, I mentioned the example of Hermes and the GMB which, while untangling the difficulties in the so-called gig economy, have gone ahead of the Government and this place by building their own regulations, which work for both employer and employee. That is wonderful and where it happens, such as in the example she suggested, we should highlight and be proud of it.

To be clear, I do not wish to prevent the seasonal agricultural workers scheme from running—it is important—but I want to ensure that we get honesty in the debate and that the workers who will be at the heart of the scheme get a fair deal and are heard. I feel that I ought to use my place here in support of that.

The hon. Gentleman is making a hugely significant point. I agree with him that the scheme has great benefits, but does he agree that, as well as risking potential slavery, a six-month scheme is so restrictive that many people will simply choose to go underground? The Government are setting themselves up for that to be a serious problem. Does he also agree that for many other industries—the 10,000 people working in hospitality and tourism in Cumbria, for example—that kind of option is neither available nor even proposed? That will have a huge impact on the economy in communities such as mine.

Many of the technical points about the scheme, such as those that the hon. Gentleman has made, will be seen in the pilot. We will have to test that and see the evaluation. I am interested to hear from the Minister how much that evaluation will be shared with all of us, so that we can have a say. Moving beyond agriculture, I know that other Members have an interest in the tourism sector, so if they wish to intervene at any point, I will be happy to accept.

There are real dangers in the scheme. Looking at history, a seasonal agricultural workers scheme ran from the second world war until only six years ago. It was not perfect: there were examples of abuse, the minimum wage being dodged, workers being misled about available work and recruiters purposefully over-recruiting. I have pressed the Home Office on this, so I know that

“ensuring the protection and wellbeing of participating migrant workers is of primary importance”,

but part of this debate is about wanting to know how that will be so and what safeguards and accountability will be in place.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about workers’ rights, but is he aware that in 1961 this country signed a treaty produced by the Council of Europe to give all workers the proper rights within their countries? That is still in force, despite the wealth of European Union legislation that has come in since. Will he hang on to that as a hope for the future?

Those protections are in place, although we have seen that they have not been enough in the past. In the 50 or so years since, it is important that we have built on them.

The hon. Gentleman might be aware that I have a significant soft fruit industry in my constituency. When I visit my farmers, I see migrants who have come over year after year. I met someone in a packhouse who had been there for nine years consecutively, working their way up into their role. If the conditions were particularly hard, people would not come back year on year.

I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting that and for adding to the debate with her experience back home. Those are exactly the sort of things that we should weave in to how we proceed in future.

To put ourselves in the place of people who wish to enter the scheme, and so seek insecure and relatively low-paid work in this country, it is reasonable to expect that they would not have ready access to funding or the hard cash to pay for, for example, a visa, their flights, any recruitment fees, medical costs and other associated fees. The likelihood is therefore very high that, in order to get a better income for themselves and their families and to start a better life, they would be forced to seek a loan—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—although I did not mean to interrupt him mid-sentence. I have one point to make. Those of us with significant soft fruit farmers in our constituencies are calling for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme to ensure sufficient labour. At the moment, one of the challenges for the industry is that workers have choices of where to go, so we are competing with other countries to attract them. Workers will therefore only come to this country if there are good opportunities and working conditions for them. It is important for us to offer good working conditions and extend the hand of welcome to seasonal workers who come to the UK.

Order. The Member in charge is being very generous in allowing interventions from a number of people, but I warn him that I want to give the Minister the chance to give a comprehensive response to the debate. Could he please bear that in mind? I notice that he has a number of papers in front of him that he may wish to go through.

A couple of them are just for you to autograph to put on eBay, Mr Owen. I am sure the Minister will not mind my gobbling a little of his time so his colleagues may make interventions.

The point raised by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) makes my heart bleed a bit. By raising our standards—whether on pay, accommodation or the nature of work or management—to ensure that we attract those workers, we would make Britain a beacon that would attract the best. That can be only a good thing. It would mean the market was working well, and I would be keen for that to happen.

I worry about sources of money. People like us go to banks to get loans; too often our constituents go to loan sharks. The people we are talking about are likely to enter debt bondage. A recruiter offers the chance to enter the scheme and says, “Don’t worry about the upfront cost and your flights,” but that turns into an inflated or artificial debt that people never actually work off. That happens around the world, but in our country, too, there is a very live risk. It cannot be right that about half the victims of forced labour in the private economy are in some sort of debt bondage, according to the International Labour Organisation. We must not defer our responsibility as a country for ensuring that that does not happen to whichever recruitment firms we work with. We cannot give away our responsibility.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about slavery and allowing gangmasters to flourish in any migration system we create. To temper that, among Ayrshire vegetable growers there is a great relationship between the employer and the migrant worker on accommodation and rates of pay. Surely, we need to encourage a system to ensure that that continues to thrive, for the benefit of the industry and the individuals who choose to work in the UK.

The hon. Gentleman gives an example of something else that we should seek to build on. We should not think that the fears that I am raising apply across the industry to all employers—far from it—but where it does happen, it is exceptionally serious and we should want to tackle it. The scheme that ran until 2013 would cost workers often more than £10,000 for their jobs. Overcoming that challenge is a matter for the state and not just about good commissioning or contracting.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority will play a very important role. As colleagues have highlighted, the GLAA has 123 members of staff in the entire country, who are tasked with licensing gangmasters in agriculture, horticulture and shellfish gathering. They oversee the entire labour market to protect workers from modern slavery. Those 123 people must be very talented. There is no proposal to increase the number of staff as part of SAWS. They will be expected to license and monitor overseas labour agents from anywhere outside the EU. How are they likely to be able to do that? I hope the Minister will address that in his reply.

Under the previous iteration of SAWS, workers reported utter deprivation due to low hours, bad weather affecting their work, and being paid less than the minimum wage and being unable to afford to fly home. That situation cannot be repeated, because workers in the scheme rely on their employer for all their necessities: accommodation, transportation, food and information. They will not have access to public funds. People may face a choice between remaining in an abusive situation and becoming destitute. None of us would want to be in that situation. The Government need to ensure that individuals who enter the scheme will have access to support to leave their situation if they are being exploited.

Debt bondage and entrapped workers are the two risks that I am most concerned about, but there are other issues, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) said that, because migrant workers by definition are here for a short time, they are less likely to know their immigration and employment rights. Therefore, they are less likely to be able to identify abuses. We will all have heard extraordinary stories of car washes, where individuals who are liberated from their slavery find out that the minimum wage is three or four times what they are paid. They did know they were being exploited; they just thought that was what happened. The only information they had access to led them to think that was the case.

We should draw on the trade union movement. I thank Unite for its support in preparing this speech; it has proposed a series of things to work well alongside the scheme to help to organise these workers. I hope the Minister will look at that. Not speaking English puts people at risk of abuse, and those who are not here for long are not likely to develop language skills. Let us make sure that rights advice and support is available in the UK beyond the current limited multilingual support.

Very often, the people who abuse workers are from the workers’ own communities. This is as much about ensuring that police have access in the ways the hon. Gentleman describes, as it is about talking to those communities.

Slavery operations are incredibly sophisticated, while also being simple: people from the same place who speak the same language take a person from home and exploit them, cutting out all the other links in the chain, so that they do not know that they are in an exploitative situation. As constituency MPs, we all know that our labour inspection regime in this country is predominantly reactive and relies on workers’ complaints. How would a catchment of workers who have not identified their own abuse be able to say that is the case? We ought to be mindful of that.

I have laid out a number of real challenges in the scheme that none of us would design legislation to support—quite the opposite. We know that after we leave the European Union we will face a defining moment for our country, when we decide where we want to be. We have heard a lot in the Chamber in recent weeks about being a high-standards country, especially when it comes to workers’ rights. Now is a good time for that. I want that for my constituents, neighbours, friends and family. I also want that for the people who come here and make sure we have food on our table. Those high standards must apply to them, too. We cannot use strong language in this place while allowing gaps in our system where abuse prevails.

I am pleased that, through my engagement with the Home Affairs Committee, I have received a commitment from the Home Secretary that slavery will be given due regard as part of the evaluation of the pilot. I would like to know what that looks like, when we will start to understand that and what Ministers will be doing about the agents used as intermediary third parties. The breadth of contributions from Members from every corner of the UK shows the strength of feeling. I hope that we can work collectively to get this right.

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

Hon. Members may wonder what the Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service, who is also the Minister with responsibility for London, is doing here responding to a debate on seasonal agricultural workers. In truth, the Immigration Minister is tied up in a Public Bill Committee and cannot be here. Since we operate the principle of total football in the Home Office, every Minister is meant to be comfortable whatever ball is passed to him or her. Underlying that, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) made the point that the main thrust of the debate has been the determination to protect people from exploitation and abuse.

I am extremely happy to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) not just on calling a debate that has galvanised 16 Members of Parliament from across the country and across parties, but on his passion and his persistent cross-party work on modern slavery since he has been in this place. One of the great beacons of progress I have witnessed in my time in Parliament is the country’s increased understanding of the reality of modern slavery and our determination as a society to combat it. On the Government side, we are proud of the leadership, particularly of the Prime Minister, but I recognise the cross-party determination essential to make the kind of progress we need.

Given what the Minister says about the Government’s commitment to modern slavery, may I ask, cheekily and slightly tangentially, whether he will have a word with the Leader of the House about finding Government time to debate Lord McColl’s excellent Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which would give additional support to the victims of modern slavery? That would be another example of cross-party support for tackling modern slavery.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his cheekiness. I certainly undertake to ensure that the Leader of the House is aware of his intervention.

I will seek to reassure the hon. Member for Nottingham North and others who share his concerns that, in proposing the pilot, we are determined not to risk going back in time or creating loopholes for exploitation. I am delighted to have this period of scrutiny, which is incredibly important to us. I hope I can persuade him that we have addressed most of his concerns.

The hon. Gentleman and others were rightly up front about the need to support some of our fastest growing industries. Of course it is right that we do so, but a balance needs to be struck. He mentioned that how we meet temporary labour needs in the agriculture sector is a long-standing issue. We totally appreciate that farming is a long-term endeavour and that UK growers, like most businesses, place great emphasis on certainty when it comes to workforce planning.

Will the Department write to me and to colleagues about the need for certainty for rural and agricultural businesses, and in particular about looking at examples of other companies and learning from best practice? Can the Minister say how the Department would respond to support the needs of rural businesses should demand exceed the 2,500 places?

I am certainly happy to look at giving that undertaking, and I totally accept the point my right hon. Friend makes about the opportunity to learn from best practice. Clearly, she believes strongly that that exists in her constituency.

Let me say this about how the Government have risen to the challenge of supporting some of our fastest growing industries with their employment needs: against the backdrop of Brexit, we have set out clear transitional arrangements that will enable UK growers to continue to recruit from the European Union for up to two years after the UK’s exit. It is important to note that those arrangements will apply regardless of whether we leave with or without a deal.

The Minister mentioned some of our fastest growing sectors. Will he join me in recognising that the tourism and hospitality sector also has a great need for seasonal workers? We must ensure that we make provision for that sector as well as for agriculture.

I certainly note that point, and I quite understand where it comes from, given the constituency my hon. Friend represents. I will ensure that the Immigration Minister takes that on board.

As the House knows, we have published an ambitious White Paper, setting out proposals for our future skills-based immigration system. That includes introducing, as a transitional measure, a new temporary short-term workers route to ensure that UK businesses, irrespective of sector, have the staff they need, including seasonal workers, and to help employers move smoothly to the future system. However, this debate is principally about the two-year seasonal workers pilot, which allows non-EU migrants to work on UK farms for six months, specifically in the edible horticultural sector, and I will use the time remaining to focus on the concerns the hon. Member for Nottingham North raised.

We are very clear that we want to support UK businesses, but it is just as important to us that everyone working in our economy is safe and is treated fairly and with respect. Exploiting people for their labour, subjecting them to horrific conditions such as those we have seen in the past, and denying them basic employment rights is of course a form of abuse.

That is the fundamental point. We must give people not only the right to complain but the confidence to come forward. Will the Minister consider talking to the Immigration Minister about how to give that confidence to people who come to work on these schemes, both when they arrive and before they leave their countries?

I certainly take on board that point and give that undertaking. We are determined to protect workers from abuse and to crack down on employers who try to profit from exploiting people. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is a world-leading landmark that gives law enforcement agencies the tools to deal with offenders and provides enhanced protection for victims, but we recognise that the nature of labour exploitation continues to evolve. We believe we are keeping pace with that, having introduced further measures to tackle exploitation through the Immigration Act 2016. We have widened the remit of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, giving it new powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to investigate serious labour market offences, including modern slavery offences, in all sectors. Those principles underpin all our immigration employment arrangements.

Let me turn to the clear and robust protections we have built into the design of the pilot, which were central to the line of inquiry from the hon. Member for Nottingham North. At the heart of those protections is our sponsorship system, which will be used to manage the licensing of the organisations—the scheme operators—selected to manage the pilot. The sponsor licensing system places clear and binding requirements and obligations on scheme operators, including robust responsibilities to ensure the welfare of participating migrant workers. Critically, it also gives the Home Office clear powers to revoke an operator’s licence if it falls short in its duties. That will be underpinned by a robust monitoring and compliance regime, which will include site visits by Home Office sponsor compliance teams.

On the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), the Home Office is working closely with the GLAA to share best practice for conducting such compliance visits and to share intelligence about our respective findings. We are absolutely determined to get this right. We have no desire to go backwards. We need to learn from the past.

The tier 2 and tier 5 sponsor guidance published by the Home Office on 11 January sets out organisations’ full responsibilities towards their seasonal workers. Those include ensuring that the work environment is safe and complies with all relevant health and safety requirements; that workers are treated fairly by their employer and are not threatened with or subjected to violence; that workers are paid properly, with time off and proper breaks; that workers are housed in hygienic and safe accommodation, although it is not mandatory for workers to live in accommodation provided by their employer; that workers’ passports are not withheld from them; and that procedures are in place to enable migrants to report any concerns and to move to another employer.

Should either of the selected operators fall short in those duties, action will be taken, up to and including the revocation of their sponsor licences. As a prerequisite for becoming a scheme operator, each organisation must hold and maintain licencing from the GLAA. Should a scheme operator lose its GLAA licensing at any point, its sponsor licence will be revoked with immediate effect.

I understand that the issue of debt bondage is of particular concern to the hon. Member for Nottingham North. Placing someone in debt bondage would constitute a failure to comply with the licensing standards and lead to the revocation of the operator’s licence. That in turn would lead to the revocation of its licence to act as a scheme operator. We therefore believe we have the sanctions in place to tackle that unacceptable practice. It is, however, important that we are alive to that risk and remain vigilant to any risk of exploitation.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the GLAA requires additional resources as a result of the pilot. I reassure him that the pilot is very much business as usual for the GLAA. We believe that an additional 2,500 workers will not place a significant additional burden on it, especially at a time when the sector tells us the overall number of seasonal workers is decreasing.

The Immigration Minister and I would be happy to look at any proposals put forward by Unite, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. I hope he is reassured by the range of protective measures we have put in place and by the clear requirements on scheme operators. We are confident that we have designed the scheme in a way that addresses his concerns.

Question put and agreed to.