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Agriculture Sector: Recruitment Support

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered recruitment support for the agriculture sector.

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

The agriculture sector and those who work in it are the backbone of our nation. With energy prices soaring, food shortages looming and concerns over our global supply chains, this debate is incredibly timely. Farmers must be listened to, and my hope for the debate is that we can air some of their voices and fears, and address what it is that they actually need. I hope that the Minister will deal directly in her response with some of the points that I raise. Farmers in rural communities are listening and waiting for real answers.

I will cover two sides to recruitment support. The first is farmers’ specific need to recruit workers now—they need them to harvest crops, tend to animals and make sure that we get produce into our supermarkets and on to our plates—and to secure a labour supply for the years ahead. The other is more holistic. There are almost half a million people in the agricultural labour force in the UK. The rural economy, and farmers in particular, are arguably being ignored, putting the entire industry and all those livelihoods—and, arguably, the wider rural economy—in danger.

Let me start with the direct interventions. I acknowledge that the seasonal agricultural workers visa, which is a critical issue in my constituency of North East Fife, falls under the remit of the Home Office, but I hope that the Minister can confirm that her Department has conversations with the Home Office and advocates for the needs of the farming community. The scheme has been beset by problems since its inception. Last year, sponsors were brought into the scheme too late, leaving farmers scrambling to secure their workers for harvest. Farmers have been unable to plan for this year or the years ahead, with announcements about the number of visas and how the scheme would operate made as late as December. Now it is harvest time for those summer foods we love so much, such as asparagus, salad and fresh fruit—North East Fife is famed for its soft fruit—and for flowers and plants for our gardens and homes. For that, we need workers.

I spoke directly to farmers in my constituency yesterday, and at the weekend I attended the Fife show in Cupar. That was the first time the show had been held since covid, and the first time I had attended as MP for the constituency. I have engaged with the National Farmers Union of Scotland and local NFUS members, and they tell me that there are simply not enough seasonal workers, that those who are coming are coming too late, that there is no time to provide training, and that the costs associated with them are going through the roof.

We were promised 30,000 visas. They have been issued—I am grateful for that—but that simply is not enough to cover all the farms in the UK. The Government have told us that that number was based on last year’s figures. In many ways, that might seem logical, but I wrote to them last year warning that it would not work, and I know that the NFU warned them too. I am sure that MPs from rural parts of the country will have heard the same from their constituents.

The delay in setting up the scheme last year meant that not enough farmers were able to apply. For some, the picking season was half over before workers were able to arrive—that was particularly true in Scotland. This year, more businesses are eligible to get workers under the scheme, as one of the few improvements is the inclusion of the horticulture industry. Like the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, and we were pleased to visit the horticulture industry in Perthshire earlier this year. However, as a result of its inclusion, 30,000 visas arguably is not enough.

We have been promised 10,000 more visas, but as yet they have not been released. I hope that the Minister will give us an update or go and speak to the Home Office and report back, because those additional visas are needed as soon as possible. When I asked my farmers in North East Fife yesterday what one thing they wanted me to impress upon the Minister in this debate, they said that they need those visas immediately. That is the thing that would make a fundamental difference to them.

When those visas are issued, we need workers to get access to them and then to be able to travel without delay. The farm in North East Fife with its soft fruit crop needs to know the date when its workers will arrive so that it can plan to train them and get its plants picked—we all know that strawberries do not stay fresh for long. What it does not need is what is happening now. Delays in visa processing mean that workers are arriving seven to 10 days later than expected. That might not sound like a lot, but when people are staring at their investment and livelihood, knowing that their chance to realise it is time-critical, seven to 10 days is a lifetime. Arriving late means crops might start to go over and workers will need to be rushed straight to harvest without time for enough training. There are safety implications from that, and we know that there are safety concerns in the industry at the best of times.

Historically, a significant number of workers coming to the UK have come from Ukraine. That is clearly not the case this year, meaning that many staff are new to the task and are not returning as they have done in previous years. They need training to work efficiently and well. Training, which takes time, is not available if they arrive late.

There is a very real side to all this. I was told yesterday of people having to choose between picking their harvest or planting their crops. I have been told of farmers who are already making decisions not to plant next year. They are making decisions to either let fruit rot or face empty fields down the line. In some respects, it is simple. Do the Government want a food shortage now or next year? If nothing is done, that is the inevitable outcome.

I have set out the immediate short-term crisis. I also want to know about the Government’s long-term plan to provide recruitment support for the agricultural sector. Every expert in farming and migration in food supply chains says that we cannot rely on domestic workers alone. We are now seeing the tightest labour market in decades, with staff shortages everywhere. Migrant workers will continue to be a feature of farming recruitment. That is the simple fact. For the arable farmers I have talked about, that means securing a future or some certainty around the seasonal agricultural worker scheme. That means announcements for years ahead being made now so that they can plan accordingly.

Our food supply may be just-in-time, but business planning is not, and just like any other business, farmers need certainty to plan. Indeed, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended earlier this year that announcements be made on a five-year rolling basis. I ask the Minister if she will endorse that plan. It also means considering whether more visas need to be made available. I would argue that the data used for this year’s allocation is flawed. The Government must make a proper analysis, looking at demand on a month-to-month basis, to assess what farms actually need to function.

For livestock farmers—I am aware I have not yet mentioned them—future planning requires a proper, long-term solution in order to get the skilled workers they need. We can all remember last year when a lack of butchers led to thousands of animals being culled. The Government responded by issuing emergency short-term visas, but that was too little and too late. One of the issues with these skilled workers is the English language requirement. We can agree that having some level of English—and I have already mentioned safety—will be useful for workers to do their jobs well and to fit in with their wider communities. However, the amount of English needed to work as a nurse and as a butcher are arguably very different. I ask whether consideration is being given to having some flexibility in those rules.

Part of the picture in the long term will be the recruitment of more domestic labour. Agricultural workers and farmers are an ageing cohort, with fewer and fewer young people being attracted. Indeed, in my constituency we have the Scottish Rural University College in Cupar, and I have visited it on a couple of occasions to look at the people who are coming through. There is a big growth in dog grooming, but we are not seeing the numbers that we need coming into other parts of the industry. To reverse this trend, we must make farming an attractive profession. It must start from school, with vocational training and appropriate signposting in job centres. I hope the Minister will say what conversations she is having with the Department for Work and Pensions in that regard.

Turning to the agricultural sector more generally, what is the Minister’s plan to support businesses? In Scotland alone, the sector employs 67,000 people directly and supports a further 320,000 jobs. The rural economy is massive. At a time when the Government are saying they want to secure our domestic food supply, what is their actual plan to put food on our plates? If their goal is to have us eating British food and not to suffer shortages from global supply chains that are disrupted, they are failing. In the first three months of this year, we imported an extra £1.7 billion worth of food and live animals compared to the end of last year.

There is lots that the Government could but are not doing to secure the future of British farming. Farmers are under extreme financial pressures, like many of us. Grain prices are up. Energy and gas prices are up. Fertiliser prices are up a staggering 200%. To top it all off, the Government have increased the labour bill by imposing an additional wage requirement for workers under the seasonal agricultural worker scheme.

Many of the farmers I have spoken to entered into contracts to sell their spring produce last year, agreeing a price based on the actual legal minimum wage. I completely understand that supermarkets and other shops do not want to increase prices on the shelves because of the cost of living crisis that people are experiencing. However, the Government’s late decision to impose that higher minimum wage cannot be passed on by farmers, so it is taking money directly out of farmers’ pockets.

Profit margins in farming are tiny. There are a lot of hard-to-control variables, such as the weather, pests and plants simply not thriving. Imposing unavoidable costs on farmers is beyond unhelpful. Can the Minister say what the Government plan to do to support farming communities during this cost of living and cost of farming crisis? What conversations have taken place with the Home Office in relation to this wage requirement?

Let us look to the future and long-term investment in the rural economy. It is inevitable that more and more agricultural processes will be automated, but that requires investment and training. Are the Government consulting farmers? Where is the plan for support? The sector needs confidence to move forwards. Meanwhile, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee reports notable concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of those in agriculture. Clearly, something is not adding up.

Finally, what are the Department’s plans to monitor the impact of other Government initiatives on the agriculture sector? International trade agreements are being made with seemingly no thought to the need to protect our farmers, who have higher welfare standards, from cheaper competition. The Subsidy Control Act 2022 controversially includes farming subsidies in its scope, even though they have always been excluded from state aid regulations. The Act also risks undermining the devolved Governments’ abilities to make policies to support their own farming communities with their own specific needs.

Farmers are vital to this country, but they have been let down by this Conservative Government for too long. Recent media reporting shows that the Government know that, and so do farmers. I want farmers to not only survive, but thrive. I want food on our shelves and on our plates. I have been listening to farmers in North East Fife and their needs are clear: 10,000 seasonal worker visas now, an end to Home Office delays, a long-term plan and investment in their future. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I am always happy to support the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) in the debates she brings forward. Obviously, when I saw the subject of this debate, I wished to participate. It will be no secret that I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. Back home, we own land; we are farmers.

The Minister will know that I am especially pleased to see her in her place, because I know that she is someone who sets out to give us answers. I am very pleased with that. I also look forward to the contributions of the two Front-Bench spokespeople, the hon. Members for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) and for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner).

I want to make three points. My first point is about a scheme that is already in place. Secondly, I will refer to the contributions from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs back home in Northern Ireland and the young farmers’ clubs. Thirdly, I will refer to the visa scheme, which the hon. Member for North East Fife referred to in some detail. As the Member of Parliament for Strangford, I represent a very urban but also very rural constituency, so I am greatly exercised by this issue. I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate and congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing it forward.

Last week, I learned of a scheme—it was one I had not been aware of—because of an event held in this House. I was particularly encouraged to attend, especially when I found out exactly who was there. It was the 10-year celebration of the McDonald’s progressive young farmers programme. I know that the hon. Member for North East Fife was there. From the moment I walked into the Churchill Room, I was beset by Northern Ireland accents. It is such a pleasure to come here and hear my accent bouncing back from other people in some numbers—it is quite unusual in Westminster.

Of the four young people speaking, two were from Northern Ireland. One was young Carys Martin from Greyabbey in my constituency. When she told me who she was, I knew at once—as you do, Mr Twigg—that I knew her mother and father, as well as her grandfather, Billy Martin, who used to be the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union in Northern Ireland. It is a family that is steeped in agriculture production. There were three other young farmers—one was from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). It is great to see our prominent agrifood work being recognised by McDonald’s. It is a great scheme.

Over the past 10 years, the programme has given progressive young farmers the opportunity to kick-start their careers in the food and farming industry by spending a year with McDonald’s, tracing every step of the supply chain. Throughout the programme, they receive mentorship from a host farmer, as well as some of the UK’s leading food supply companies, and gain in-depth experience in key agricultural sectors. This is a smashing scheme, one that does just what the title of the debate says: recruitment support for the agriculture industry.

The young people on the placement develop the broad range of knowledge needed to succeed in today’s world of food and farming. McDonald’s success in the United Kingdom and Ireland is underpinned by British agriculture. I am always very proud to say the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—I have said it so many times. It is not meant to be offensive to anyone; it is how I feel. I feel the strength of the Union.

McDonald’s said:

“We are committed to sourcing quality ingredients and spend approximately £1 billion each year on our British supply chain.”—

that is significant, and tells us how important the scheme is. They continued:

“As part of that, we work with over 23,000 farmers across the country to source our products. All our beef is 100% British and Irish and we source all our pork from British, RSPCA Assured farms.”

What a wonderful programme this private enterprise has taken on and committed to over the last 10 years. How great to see Northern Ireland playing such a prominent role. The question we must ask is: are we supporting our young farmers and agri-workers in the same way. I believe we are, through the schools and colleges.

I move on to my second point, about the young farmers’ clubs of Ulster and those across this whole great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I used to be a member of the Ulster young farmers’ club when I was a wee boy in Ballywalter, which was not yesterday. It was a social occasion, but the activities it involved encouraged recruitment support for the agriculture sector, the very title of the debate—good things happen. We have Greenmount college as well.

I know that Minister Edwin Poots of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs meets the Minister regularly—they both tell me the same—which shows a strong governmental and ministerial partnership and input, which is beneficial for everyone, which is really good. I am greatly encouraged by what happens.

I move to my third point, about an issue that the hon. Member for North East Fife referred to. I voted leave in the referendum. By the way, it was a vote for the whole of the UK to leave, and not this—with respect—piecemeal deal that has so adversely affected people throughout the country, particularly in Northern Ireland. We are looking forward to addressing that issue with the support of the Prime Minister and others.

When I voted leave, it was with the understanding that farm workers would continue to have easy access to and fishermen would have easier access to our visa programme. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), has been incredibly helpful in his support for the fishing organisations. The Minister here today works with them regularly—in the corridors of Westminster last week, she told me she had occasion to meet the representatives of the two fish producers organisations, Harry Wick and Alan McCulla. I know she looks forward to that and that they do as well. It is always about how we can help, which is why the Minister is appreciated so much by the fishing organisations.

Some of the agrifood producers, such as Willowbrook Foods in my constituency, have highlighted the fact that things are still complex. I know it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but we need to smooth those issues so that we can offer greater support to ensure that no harvest is left in the field and that producers have the support they need. Willowbrook Foods was very keen, along with Mash Direct—two of the major producers in my constituency—to offer help to the Afghan refugees. They were the first people to contact me. The war started on the Saturday and on the Sunday, they were on the phone to say, “Jim, if any of those refugees need placements or jobs, we are here.” I am always greatly encouraged by those who take their hands out of their pockets, get them dirty and do the work. Those people—those two companies—are examples of just that.

I will finish by saying that we must offer greater support to ensure that no harvest is left in the field, and that producers have the support they need. McDonald’s has sown into their programme; are we sowing to meet our needs? If not then, to the best of our ability, can we do better? I genuinely look forward to the Minister’s response. I have in Strangford a constituency that I believe is second to none—no offence to any other Member of Parliament, by the way. I see people who want to help, and I think that is what the Minster is looking for.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, not least because you are so lenient. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to speak, given that I was not here at the beginning.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for introducing this debate on the hugely important issue of recruitment in the agricultural sector. If we enjoy the benefits of eating food, if we enjoy the environment, if we think tackling climate change is important, and if we think water management and flood prevention or tourism and hospitality are important, then we should be very grateful to our farmers and those who work in agriculture. We should be determined to protect that industry, not do it harm.

My great concern is that the average age of a farmer in the United Kingdom is 59. The Government are transitioning from the old common agricultural policy to the new environmental land management scheme, and while there is a golden goodbye programme in that scheme, which many people will take advantage of, there is no golden hello. My concern is that we are seeing people leave the industry, but we are not seeing people coming into it, either from farming or non-farming families.

The recent closure of Newton Rigg College, an agricultural college outside Penrith for the UK’s second-largest farming county, was outrageous and unnecessary. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland directly fund agricultural education there. Why could we not do that in the UK, given that we now have that freedom? Why did DEFRA not choose to invest in saving our college in Cumbria, so that we can reach farming families while also recruiting people from other communities to be the farmers of the future? That seems a terrible wasted opportunity, and I call upon the Government to put it right, even at this late stage.

Young people are not likely to be attracted to agriculture if the opportunity to make a living is badly reduced. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about his support for leaving the European Union. Members will know that I did not agree with him on that. Nevertheless, if I was asked to find positives of us being outside the European Union, I would pick getting away from the perverse incentives of the common agricultural policy.

There is an opportunity for the UK to build a better agricultural policy than the one that we used to have and are moving away from—if we do things right. The intention of the Government to move towards the environment land management scheme, and public money for public goods, is good. I want to be clear that in principle the Liberal Democrats agree with that. My concern is that the transition is being botched, which will damage farming and recruitment into farming, thereby damaging our ability as a country to feed ourselves, care for our environment, and provide the backdrop to the hospitality and tourism industry that is vital to my community and those in the south-west, as well as rural places such as Northumberland and other rural parts of this country.

I have got about 1,000 farms in my constituency. Every single one of them has lost 20% of its basic payments this year. Of those 1,000 farms, a grand total of 13 will be getting something through the new sustainable farming incentive. What does it mean for recruiting people into farming when they realise that farm incomes are evaporating and new sources of income are not available any time soon? If we care about recruitment into agriculture, surely it makes sense to park the reduction in basic payments while we continue to develop the new environmental scheme, so that we can recruit people into agriculture.

There is a huge problem in rural communities such as mine. Cumbria is the second biggest agricultural county in England—the biggest is Devon. There has been a 70% drop in the number of private-rented properties available to local people in the past two years. Why? House prices have gone bananas because of a huge increase in demand for holiday lets and an increase in the number of Airbnbs. What has that done? It has squeezed out the working-age population. That is affecting Devon and Cornwall, Somerset, Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Northumberland and other rural communities. That is why action is needed right now.

In our community, hospitality, tourism and agriculture are absolutely intertwined. So many farms are viable only because they have diversified into the hospitality and tourism market. If I say that last year 63% of hospitality businesses in Cumbria were operating at less than capacity because they could not find enough staff, that gives a sense of the recruitment crisis facing much of rural Britain. It is caused by three basic issues.

The first is the lack of affordable housing for people to live in. If there is nowhere for the working-age population to live, there is no working-age population and no workforce. That is why, despite the huge demand for tourism businesses last year, there was no availability. People could find a house to stay in for a week, but they could not find anywhere to eat or drink, or any way of having a pleasurable experience on a lake, because no one could recruit any staff.

The lack of affordable housing for a local workforce is a crucial part of the crisis, and the Government’s failure to have sensible visa rules is another. If we want to control our borders, great. But why not control them in our interests rather than doing ourselves damage? There is a desperate need for us to use youth mobility visas, for example. We have spoken to the Home Office about them to ensure that we try to do something to arrest the agricultural and hospitality labour shortages.

Finally, we have huge distances to cover in areas such as ours, with very expensive travel and a lack of affordable and accessible bus services. That is another major reason why there is a problem. There is no doubt that in communities such as mine and in Devon, Cornwall and other rural parts of the United Kingdom, a staffing shortage—a recruitment crisis—is undermining hospitality and tourism and undermining agriculture. If we undermine agriculture, particularly at a time such as this, we run the risk of not being able to feed ourselves as a country, which will make us more dependent on imports from other countries. We will put ourselves in the morally questionable position of fishing in the same markets for grain as the poorest countries in the world, thereby inflating the prices they pay or robbing them of the grain altogether.

I would argue that the farming policy the Government are now enacting, which is almost deliberately designed to reduce the amount of food that Britain produces and the number of farmers Britain has, is not just strategically stupid but morally abhorrent.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Twigg, and I commend the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this important debate. Things are at a crisis point in some parts of the UK. I was shocked to discover that seasonal worker shortages of up to 75% have been reported in some parts of the UK. Many food producers, farmers and horticulturists have very real fears that there will not be enough labour to pick their crops this year.

The hon. Member for North East Fife outlined very well the various problems experienced with the seasonal agricultural workers visa scheme and spoke movingly about the conversations she is having directly with constituents who are deeply affected by these problems and shortages. The Government often talk of the low employment rate in the UK—as we all know from sitting in the Chamber, they like to mention it frequently—but the consequence is that there are not enough workers to fill the gaps in supply.

The hon. Member spoke of food security and domestic production—I shall return to that soon—as well as about the increased reliance on imported foods, and asked how farming communities will be supported. She also mentioned automation, which I have to say seems like an impossible dream for many farmers. It is simply beyond their ability to afford the sorts of mechanical pickers and diggers that could make the difference and make them less reliant on agricultural workers’ support. It kind of irritates me, to be honest, when it is spoken about as though it is an easy option for your average farmer when it just is not.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did a fine job of speaking up for McDonald’s and its farming support scheme, and he usefully outlined the more general need to attract young entrants to farming. If that is not addressed rapidly with genuine support for younger entrants, the sector will experience problems in the face of an ageing and retiring farming population.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) continued on the importance of doing everything possible to attract new entrants to farming and ensuring that farming continues to be an attractive option. That is such an important point. If young farmers—they might be sons and daughters of farmers—look at the work that their parents go through to make farming a viable career, and think that it will just not be worth it because they do not make enough money to survive, that will clearly affect who becomes a farmer in future. The hon. Gentleman also spent time dwelling on the effects of Brexit, to which I will return, as well as, crucially, the recruitment crisis in rural areas—not simply in farms, but in hospitality and the other organisations around farming that rural communities rely on so heavily.

The SNP has long warned that the obsession of some in this place with Brexit and ending freedom of movement would cause significant problems. The EFRA Committee confirmed in March what we have been saying for years: that although the pandemic certainly exacerbated labour shortages, their cause was ultimately and largely Brexit. We must remember that a disproportionate share of the UK’s agricultural workforce—14%—is employed in Scotland. The labour challenges that our industry faces will be keenly felt, as we have heard, and industry bodies have repeatedly cited the shortage of labour as the biggest challenge they face—and they say that, let us not forget, in the face of rocketing prices for fuel, fertiliser, seed and feed, among many other extra costs.

Scotland’s horticulture industry, for example, has grown significantly since 2013 thanks largely to freedom of movement. Here is another extraordinary statistic: until the last two years, 99% of seasonal workers in the horticultural sector came from outside the UK every season. Since Brexit, the number of full-time staff has been plummeting, which threatens the delivery of home-grown produce and the viability of so many business. That was made clear to the hon. Member for North East Fife and me when we visited, with Scottish Affairs Committee colleagues, horticulturalists and soft fruit providers in Perthshire and near Dundee. Those providers made it clear to us that without support, their businesses could, and in all likelihood would, go under.

That view is supported by the UK Trade and Business Commission, which found that workforce shortages as a result of leaving the EU have crippled businesses across the country. The commission’s annual report identified a “unique set of challenges” for small businesses in Scotland and Wales, which are made worse by

“the UK Government’s general reluctance to seriously consult with the devolved administrations, whether on trade policy or economic support schemes.”

We have made cross-party calls to tailor immigration policy to suit Scotland’s needs, for example, and I am sorry to say that they have been repeatedly ignored. In January, our Holyrood Parliament voted in favour of calls for the UK Government to reform the immigration system and commit, with the Scottish Government, to a joint taskforce on labour market shortages. The Scottish Government then had to make 19 requests before the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration attended a meeting. I hope that the Minister here today will take that up with her Home Office colleagues.

That was extremely disappointing and brought back memories of a predecessor in that role, who insisted that she would not give any extra powers to Scotland that she would not also give to Lincolnshire. That comment enraged not a few in Scotland. The difference between the second largest nation in the Union and a single English county council seems fairly obvious. Of course, that is not to say that there is not a case for differentiation between English regions as well. The Migration Advisory Committee has acknowledged the need for a more bespoke approach, especially for more remote communities. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us how the UK Government are evaluating that in detail. What proper consideration has been made of that advice? It would be really helpful if she could tell us that, because of the importance of this issue to remote areas and the people who live in them.

Of course, migration is a key lever to address depopulation. Scotland’s rural communities are suffering from a real decline in the working-age population, and the salary threshold for the UK’s immigration system and the shortage occupation list are not attracting working-age people to them. As a consequence, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands wrote in January to inform UK Ministers that the Scottish Government intended to press ahead, along with local government and business partners, and explore three proposed models for a rural migration pilot—as the Migration Advisory Committee recommended—to help to address rural population decline and the employment problems those areas are experiencing. The proposals were: expanding the skilled worker route, a Scottish visa aimed specifically at designated areas within Scotland, and a remote and rural partnership scheme. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on those.

That was followed up in February with a joint letter from the three devolved Administrations, which was prompted by the UK Government’s failure to work constructively on the respective migration needs of each nation. That letter called on Ministers to revisit urgently their previously proposed 12-month temporary worker route and called on the Home Office to immediately reintroduce regular quadrilateral meetings with the devolved Governments. I do not know how much say the Minister could have on that, but that would be a useful thing to reintroduce and would go a long way to mending relations with the different devolved Governments.

Unfortunately, the UK Government also failed to consult with the devolved Administration on their introduction of narrowly targeted, short-term temporary visas, which many in the industry just feel is too little, too late. The EFRA Committee’s report, which I referred to earlier, identified criticisms of that scheme relating to the number of visas, the timing of their launches, the duration of the visas and the choice of operators to run them. For example, Scottish Land and Estates wrote that the schemes for the poultry sector and HGV drivers

“would appear to be wholly inadequate and unlikely to have a material benefit”.

As we have already heard from other Members, the cap of 30,000 on the seasonal workers pilot falls far short of the 70,000 visas per year that farmers’ unions have asked for. NFU Scotland and many others have warned that if the cap is not increased, we will again see millions of pounds-worth of crops lying rotting in the fields.

The fact that Ukrainians have made up 60% of the seasonal workers scheme since the UK left the EU only adds to the uncertainty. Russia’s appalling war is causing devastation in Ukraine, as we all know, while also threatening the security of food supply chains right across the world. Our farmers have long warned about skyrocketing costs for fertiliser, fuel, energy, seed and feed, and the conflict has unfortunately escalated those concerns.

In that context—as again has been commented on, I think, by every Member who has spoken so far—promoting sustainable and resilient domestic production is even more important, but that is not possible without the workforce. Of course, domestic production is also further undermined by the pursuit of laissez-faire post-Brexit trade deals and the possibility of importing cheaper food with lower environmental and animal welfare standards.

The Scottish National party has repeatedly asked for immigration to be devolved to Scotland, so far to no avail, but at the very least we want to see immigration policy being greatly overhauled and properly targeted, with genuine collaboration between the Home Office, DEFRA and the devolved Governments, to ensure that we attract the seasonal and permanent staff that our industries desperately need. I hope that we can hear from the Minister about the discussions she is having with the Home Office on this really important matter and the progress that DEFRA is making in this area.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate, and introducing it in such a calm and measured way. We have heard excellent speeches, and the point raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), about the failure to introduce a scheme to bring people into farming, having introduced a scheme to get them out, speaks volumes.

The hon. Member for North East Fife was calm, but frankly I think we should be angrier because what is going on is a shambles. The front page of the Farmers Guardian this week says “Exodus”, because of the people leaving. Vegetable growers are planning to switch out of vegetables to go into cereals, which is exactly the opposite of what we would like to see. The Government should hang their heads in shame, although not this Minister, as I think the problem lies mostly with the Home Office, which is a Department that seems always to be capable of making a bad situation worse.

This afternoon, we are electing a new Chair of the EFRA Committee. Before Christmas, the previous Chair was incensed by the performance of one of the Home Office Ministers, who was incoherent on the language requirements. Frankly, some of this is so bad one could not make it up. The Conservatives were once the party of business, but they are now the party driving business out of the UK.

The severity of the crisis has been clear for a long time. In August last year, a group of many major organisations—the NFU, the Food and Drink Federation and so on—commissioned a report from Grant Thornton, which pointed out that there are over half a million vacancies out of 4.1 million jobs in the food and drink sector. That situation is only getting worse. We have heard some of the figures, including a 75% shortage of seasonal workers in parts of the UK. As has been said, the situation has now been exacerbated by the tragedy in Ukraine, as last year 67% of seasonal agricultural visas went to Ukrainians and 11% to Russians and Belarusians, so the situation will get worse.

There is an irony in all this, in a sense, because it looks as if we will have to turn to other parts of the world, which will mean bringing people into the UK from further and further afield. These are not people who are returning to the UK as normal, with the requisite skills, which adds to costs and makes things even more difficult for businesses.

Let me focus on a couple of sectors. We have often talked about the pig sector, which was one of the first to feel the problem. Partly because of the lack of pork butchers, we have ended up with 200,000 pigs backed up on farms and 35,000 healthy pigs culled. That was caused by a mix of factors, but frankly it was because the Government waited too long and were too slow to act, exactly as has been said by other hon. Members.

The horticultural sector is suffering enormously, with some businesses reporting workforce shortages of between 20% and 50%, which is far worse than in the first half of the year. I visited one of our major rose growers in the east of England, which was at pains to point out just how much it depends on a few, key skilled people, whom it cannot get nearly as easily now, because of the difficulties in getting in and out of the country. What will that grower do? It will move production somewhere else—not in this country. That is quite incredible. As we come up to the pinch point for the soft fruit industry this year, I fear that the same will happen again.

We have heard many of the figures. It is extraordinary how slow the Government were to act when they were warned. Looking back at discussions before Christmas, it is extraordinary that some decisions were left right up until the verge of Christmas itself. The number of visas available was much discussed and negotiated, but it was still nowhere near the number that we need.

The Horticultural Trades Association and the EFRA Committee have called for an additional 10,000 visas. The NFU says demand could be as high as 55,000. We are told that another 10,000 visas may be available at some point, but businesses will have to wait until the end of June to learn more. Even when they are allocated, I am told by many in the industry that it takes a long time for issues to be resolved and for people to get here. Unite the Union has told me about the poor treatment experienced by many seasonal workers. Will the Minister comment on what her Department is doing to check on this long-standing problem, which is not getting any better?

We need a better plan for the agricultural labour force; we cannot go on like this. Surely we have to start by having a discussion with employers across sectors in order to know the workforce requirement. I am afraid that we are seeing a failure of workforce planning in so many areas; we see it in the health service, but also in the agricultural sector. We need to take into account the workforce that our businesses need.

Of course we want to encourage the indigenous workforce, but I am afraid that we saw the limitations of the Pick for Britain scheme a couple of years ago. It was mired in rhetorical flourishes, but when push came to shove, it did not work. We have to be realistic about these things. It is no good waxing lyrical and pretending that somehow we will magic up a workforce. The choice will be quite simple: if employers cannot find the workers, as in the hospitality sector, businesses will go elsewhere. We are seeing it with our own eyes, so we need to analyse what is needed, have a proper discussion and ensure that we have the skills the country needs. We will then have a vibrant rural economy. If not, we will be relying on imported food in the future, and that is not a good idea.

I confirm that the debate should finish by 5.43 pm. Of course, the hon. Member in charge of the debate should have some time to wind up at the end.

Do not worry, Mr Twigg—I will not take that long. As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

It is true to say that much of this debate is possibly for the Immigration Minister— the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—but I undertake to discuss with him the issues that are specifically for him, and to give feedback as and where necessary. I urge hon. Members either to deal with him directly or to use me as a conduit in the agricultural or fishing space, if that is more convenient.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this debate on an important issue. As I think she knows, I have family links to Pittenweem, so was particularly pleased to hear that the Fife Show in Cupar is up and running again. I hope that she enjoyed that at the weekend, as I am sure many of her constituents did. Her debate has highlighted that there are short-term and long-term challenges to recruitment in the agricultural sector, which was a point ably made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who speaks with such authority on farming issues.

I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that we should be grateful to our farmers, but I take issue with his fundamental misconception about our future farming schemes. I agree that we need to keep food production at current levels. Indeed, we have ambitions in DEFRA to increase food production—particularly in areas such as fruit and veg, where we traditionally have low levels—which is why today’s conversation is so important. The new entrant schemes will be set out in great detail next year; some details will come out this year, but it was always planned for that point of the agricultural transition.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I possibly need to have another meeting. This is not the place to go into great detail on the new farming schemes, but I reiterate that our sustainable farming incentive scheme is open to all farmers this year. There is a soil standard—all his farmers have soil and can apply. The countryside stewardship scheme has been taken up by 52% of farmers, so I am sure that many of his farmers will very much be a part of it too. I know the area well, as my husband comes from just next door to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I hope we will be spending some time there over the next week. The upland farmers in his constituency, and those who farm on marginal land, will need special, bespoke schemes, and tomorrow afternoon I am going to a two-day upland conference to ensure that we make the right choices and put in place the right schemes for them.

The short-term challenges of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been considerable. Last autumn, which was obviously before the war but after the pandemic, we provided a range of emergency visa schemes and other forms of support to some food sectors. Several hon. Members have spoken about the challenges in the pig sector. As a result, we have provided a package of measures, including temporary work visas, which did not include an English language requirement, for pork butchers and, of course, the private storage aid and slaughter incentive payment schemes, which have assisted in reducing the backlogs of pigs on-farm. We are now undertaking a really serious review of the pork supply chain, the results of which I look forward to sharing with the House.

We heard from several Members that, before the war in Ukraine, about 78% of seasonal workers came from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. We have been working closely with our seasonal worker visa route operators—I have met all of them—and they have proved resilient and innovative in sourcing labour from new sources, such as Kazakhstan and Mongolia. There is no silver bullet for meeting the diverse and seasonal labour needs of agriculture. That requires action on three fronts: migrant labour, domestic labour and automation. We cannot—and I never would—ignore the current importance of migrant labour to bring in the harvest, particularly in the horticultural sectors, which have particularly high seasonal peaks in demand.

Following a review of the seasonal worker visa route to date, the Government have decided to place the route on a more substantive footing. I remind Members that this is the only such route for visa applications, because the Government recognise that the needs of horticulture and those seasonal peaks are special and different. The seasonal worker route will now operate until the end of 2024, with a further assessment of need to be made as we reach that point. The visa route will no longer be defined as a pilot. I know that the seasonal horticultural workforce are particularly important to Scotland, which produces so many of our delicious strawberries and other fruits. Scotland uses about 13% of the seasonal worker route.

I reassure the hon. Member for North East Fife that, despite the significant challenges that the Home Office has had to deal with this year in dealing with Ukrainian people coming to this country, the process for dealing with seasonal worker visas is much further forward than it was at this point last year. We currently have about 13,000 workers on-farm, with 13,000 who have already completed the certificate of sponsorship stage of the visa application route. I will continue to monitor that extremely closely with the Home Office. I reassure hon. Members that I speak regularly to the Home Office Minister who leads on this matter, and my team do so probably on a daily basis. We are extremely aware of where in the process the applications are at any one time.

I understand the pressures that farmers are under and their concerns regarding seasonal workers’ pay, but it is important that we make it clear that these are not low-paid jobs; they are well-paid jobs and it is right that they are rewarded as such.

We have expanded the seasonal workers scheme to include ornamental as well as edible horticultural crops, and have generally worked with the Home Office and the four operators to make the scheme as accessible as possible. As the hon. Member for North East Fife said, 30,000 workers can come to harvest for up to six months, with the potential to increase that by up to 10,000 if there is clear evidence of need. We are currently at the stage, just before the main part of the picking season, of evidencing that need, but I have absolutely no doubt that when we can do so, those 10,000 extra visas will be immediately forthcoming.

I am genuinely reassured by the Home Office figures for this year that it has now dealt with the backlog essentially caused by the outbreak of war, and that it is now processing visas in much more normal time. I accept that there was a delay in the last two months, but I am assured by the Home Office that that is no longer the case and things are broadly getting back to normal.

The 10,000 extra visas would of course be very welcome, but surely that puts extra pressure on the 30,000—the rest. Does the Minister agree?

I am not sure that I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am sure that if we are able to evidence that need, helped by the agricultural sector, the horticultural sector and hon. Members around the country, the 10,000 visas will be forthcoming. That has been agreed with the Home Office, and I have no doubt that that will be the case.

The Government intend to commission a review of the shortage occupation list by the Migration Advisory Committee later this year. My door is always open to hon. Members who want to feed in to what we have to say about it.

We keep reinvigorating the potential of the domestic workforce—I say that as somebody whose first job was picking plants. We need to improve awareness of and access to the jobs on offer, in both primary production and processing. That includes a greater recognition of the agricultural and processing skills, qualifications and the fabulous careers in our sectors. We have always been clear about the need to shift the UK towards a high-skilled, high-wage economy, and business can and must do more to attract UK workers. I appreciate the challenge, particularly for seasonal work, which by its very nature is short term. That clearly means that it is not attractive to much of our domestic workforce in an extremely tight labour market. I commend the efforts by businesses that have taken steps to recruit more UK workers, and I am glad to see steady increases year on year in this space. Real efforts have been made, and there have been improvements in the numbers.

We are working very closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to develop and deliver a long-term recruitment strategy. With key trade associations, we have developed a regional recruitment approach, which is pretty much what the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) asked for. My colleagues in the DWP and I would be delighted to discuss that with her at greater length if she would like. It uses the DWP’s Jobcentre Plus network to foster strong local links between employers and work coaches, and give jobseekers the skills and knowledge they need to enter the sector.

We need to look at the labour and time-saving potential of automation. In many cases in this sector, that will mean machines for moving pallets around. I have never pretended that automation is a complete answer to horticultural labour needs, but more can be done to complement the need for labour and remove some of the jobs that can be done by machines. DEFRA has led a review of automation in horticulture, which will be published soon. It will provide a better understanding of what is required to accelerate the development and uptake of automation technologies in the edible and ornamental sectors.

We know it will take time to have a wide-scale roll-out of automation, but we should be doing it, and indeed we are. There are a number of initiatives across Government to bring such technologies to market as fast as possible, including some of our grant schemes in DEFRA. Our farming innovation programme and farming investment fund have schemes that are genuinely practical and ground-level for farmers to apply for. Indeed, they have done. We had to more than double the money in the scheme because it received such successful, sensible applications from the farming world.

By taking action across those three fronts, we can deliver the workforce needs of agriculture productively and sustainably for the future. I accept that more still needs to be done, and we must do it.

I thank all hon. Members who have spoken this evening. As I have a little time, I will make reference to what they said.

I recognise what the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), said about the work that DEFRA has done and the engagement that it has had. That has been my experience. I have had good engagement with the Scotland Office on my concerns about seasonal agricultural worker schemes, but the Home Office has been a real barrier. The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), and I sent a cross-party letter with the Scottish Conservatives outlining our concerns about the seasonal agricultural worker scheme after our visit to Arbuckle’s just outside Dundee. We pretty much got a flat rejection of the quite reasonable request that we made.

I will forgive the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for not hearing my speech, because he is such a great advocate for the farming community in his constituency and elsewhere. I absolutely agree with him. Indeed, I contributed to his debate on second homes, a number of which are in the East Neuk and Pittenweem. We face a real challenge if we want to encourage domestic workers into the sector; if they cannot live near the sector, they cannot work in it.

On automation, there are clearly some parts of the industry—as I have seen, certainly in later parts of the process—where it is not an option. As consumers, we are picky about our soft fruit, and we are right to be. It is difficult to expect it to be picked by anything other than hand. If farmers do not have the certainty of an income, how can they invest? Arguably, it makes our whole industry less competitive. I am always impressed with the diversity with the farming community. Things like retail and accommodation cannot exist if the core farming business is not there.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I too was at the McDonald’s young farmers scheme event. I met three former participants of the scheme, and it was great to hear that they are all still working in the sector. Our role as policymakers is to ensure that they can stay in the sector. I accept that the Minister and DEFRA are not wholly responsible for all the issues and challenges we have spoken about today, but I believe there is a responsibility to ensure that the Department collaborates across Government—on education, for example, and certainly with the Home Office—to ensure that the policies it brings forward are not to the detriment of our farming communities.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered recruitment support for the agriculture sector.

Sitting adjourned.