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Seasonal Worker Visas: Sponsorship Certificates

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the issuing of certificates of sponsorship for seasonal workers’ visas.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for asking this urgent question. The Home Office recognises the importance of the UK food and drink sector, and the agricultural industry that supplies it. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme exists to support those businesses and ensure that they have the labour they need. The quota for 2022 was 38,000 workers for the edible and ornamental horticulture sector, and a further 2,000 for the poultry sector. That quota has not yet been met, and the Home Office’s management data suggest that about 1,400 places remain.

An announcement on the 2023 scheme is imminent. My Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be making that statement very soon. In the meantime, workers already in the United Kingdom under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme can continue to take other work placements and to stay in the UK for up to six months, even if that involves remaining here into 2023. Further workers can avail themselves of the remaining 1,400 certificates and enter the UK this year—even if, again, that means staying into 2023—for the duration of their six-month placement. My Department is committed to supporting this important sector and to working with stakeholders to improve the delivery of schemes such as the one for seasonal agricultural workers.

The seasonal worker visa scheme has been a tremendous success—perhaps one of the most successful Home Office policies in recent years—and this year it has provided about two thirds of the labour needs of the horticultural sector. However, there have been some serious problems with administration. In particular, scheme operators need to be issued with an allocation of certificates of sponsorship now, so that they can recruit people and secure the visas necessary for workers to start in January.

Last year, the Home Office allowed certificates of sponsorship in 2021 to be used as the basis for workers arriving in January 2022. This year, for reasons that have not been properly explained, Home Office officials have taken a decision not to allow that and have made it clear to operators that they cannot use that route. Indeed, I understand that they have closed the ability to issue certificates of sponsorship from the end of November, so that no one at the moment is able to issue them.

There are two legitimate courses of action. One would be to allow the same situation to apply as last year, and enable the remaining certificates of sponsorship for this year to be used for workers arriving in January. The second course of action would be to make a provisional allocation of certificates of sponsorship on the sponsorship management system run by the Home Office. This could be done very easily and would enable operators to recruit staff in the next few weeks.

That is of critical importance to the daffodil industry in my constituency. Daffodil growers currently have around a third of their staff from last year’s scheme, a third of them being settled EU citizens. At the moment they are going to have a gap of between 30% and 40% of their staffing needs, which will be catastrophic for the industry by the end of January. So will the Minister take immediate action directing his officials to put a provisional allocation of certificates for sponsorship on to the Home Office sponsorship management system?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who of course brings more expertise to this issue than anybody in the House. He rightly says that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has been a success and is an important contributor to the food and drink sector in this country, but he raises important issues, and I intend to take them up with my officials.

Parts of the sector, such as the daffodil industry, require workers early in the year, meaning that we need to take steps to ensure that those businesses can make sensible recruitment decisions in good time, and not leave these decisions, as has happened too often, to the eleventh hour. I appreciate that last year the decision on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was announced on Christmas eve, which no doubt was a cause of significant frustration for those working in the sector. I will work intensively with my officials to ensure that we get that decision out as quickly as possible.

In the interim, two options are available to the industry: first, to make use of workers already in the UK under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme who have been doing other work until now but might want to move into a sector such as daffodils as quickly as possible for the remainder of their time in the UK; secondly, new individuals could enter the UK under the scheme using the undercapacity within the 2022 placement, and stay into 2023.

My right hon. Friend raises with me this morning the issue that the Home Office has frozen certificates, making it impossible for employers to bring people in and make use of the remaining certificates in this year’s quota. I have been informed by my officials this morning that nothing has changed from the way the scheme worked last year. If that is incorrect, I will change that today and ensure that the scheme is unfrozen so that important employers such as those my right hon. Friend rightly represents can make use of the remaining certificates before the end of the year. If it is correct that the Home Office has frozen these certificates, I apologise to businesses who have been inadvertently inconvenienced by that and I hope that the Environment Secretary and I can resolve this as quickly as possible.

I thank the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for asking this urgent question today. He has drawn attention to concerns faced by the daffodil industry in Cornwall—a place I hope to visit over the Christmas break; I am often in his constituency—and those concerns are shared by sectors throughout these industries.

The National Farmers Union says that as much as £60 million of food has been wasted on farms due to labour shortages. During a cost of living crisis, that is disgraceful. Where shortages are linked to pay and conditions, those must be improved, and we will work with industry to deliver. However, countries across the world require seasonal schemes to help support agriculture and horticulture. We need a properly delivered seasonal worker scheme, announced in advance with long-term action to tackle shortages, not panicked short-term announcements without any underlying strategy.

The average time taken to process a sponsorship application has more than trebled over recent years, meaning less certainty for business and more produce going to waste. What steps is the Minister taking to reduce that time? The Home Office has been warned about exploitation in this scheme, including from the results of a Government review last year and reports of recruitment fees charged by agents abroad. Have those warnings been listened to, and what safeguards have been introduced to ensure serious exploitation is not allowed to continue? Finally, this is the latest in a long series of delays, backlogs and chaos from the Home Office. It is not fair on the public and it is not fair on the sectors that rely on the Government to run smoothly; can we confidently say that this is a Home Office we can trust to get a grip?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those points. The scheme is broadly operating as it is designed to, which is shown by the fact that about 1,400 certificates are unused as of today’s date. So the overall quota of 40,000 places a year is approximately the right number. We are, as ever, discussing with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether that quota should remain the same next year or be higher. A statement on that will be made imminently. However, the decision made by my Department—with my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—to choose 40,000 appears to have been about the right number.

In terms of the scheme’s operation, we need to ensure that it is as smooth as possible because no business deserves to be put through unnecessary bureaucracy to gain access to the workers it needs. The hon. Lady is right to say that, although of course we want to make the best use of our domestic workforce, there will always be—as there has been—a need for some seasonal workers to come into the UK from overseas. That is exactly why the scheme exists.

On ensuring that those who come under the scheme are properly looked after and not abused, every one of the four or five operators of the scheme is licensed by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, and it is its responsibility, together with my Department, to ensure that those seasonal workers are looked after appropriately and do not fall inadvertently into modern slavery or other poor practices. We at the Home Office have a duty to ensure that those individuals come for the right reasons, that their employers treat them appropriately and that the scheme is not abused. There is a significant minority of people who come under the scheme and subsequently choose to apply for asylum, which is one of the many things that we have to take seriously when deciding the number of individuals who can enter under the scheme each year, but I am certainly sympathetic to the needs of our food and drink sector and will work closely with the Environment Secretary to choose the right number of places for next year. As I said in answer to my right hon. Friend, we will make an announcement soon.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on getting the urgent question. Businesses need certainty, but one other issue that my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned is the level of compliance with the scheme. Will he update the House on that? If the level of compliance is very positive, expanding the scheme to encourage more people to come to this country for short terms of working and then returning would be a sensible way forward.

Compliance with the scheme is generally high, but I would not underestimate the number of individuals who do overstay or claim asylum. We have seen a significant number of those individuals this year. There have been some exceptional factors this year such as events in Russia and Ukraine that mean that some individuals would be inclined to stay here and claim asylum. The Home Office needs to take that seriously, because several hundred individuals claiming asylum is a significant number abusing the system as it is designed.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there will be occasions when any sector will need to rely on itinerate labour from overseas, but we must also remember that we have more than 5 million people in this country who are economically inactive, and we have a duty as a Government to help more of them into the workforce here so that they can lead fulfilling and productive lives and make a contribution to British society. That should be the first duty of the Government when designing our immigration policies.

The Minister might want to look at the failed Pick for Britain scheme in reference to those comments. The National Farmers Union’s findings suggest a shocking £60 million-worth of food had been wasted in the first half of the year because of labour shortages. Of course, if the UK Government had listened to the SNP, free movement would be presenting a solution to many of these issues.

Will the Minister now listen to calls from Scotland’s External Affairs Secretary and consider a 24-month temporary visa rather than the short-term sticking plaster approach that we have seen so far? Will he also consider the proposal made by the SNP Government in 2020 through which migrants wanting to work in Scotland could choose to apply for a Scottish visa as well as the Scottish Government’s call for a rural visa pilot to meet the distinct needs of Scotland’s remote rural and island areas? Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland all operate successful visa systems that offer a tailored response to the immigration needs of those countries. Why do UK Ministers insist on such a rigid one-size-fits-all approach?

There is no significant evidence to suggest that the UK labour market varies so greatly between the nations that we need to take different approaches in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. It is better that we remain within the United Kingdom and that we have one single immigration policy covering the whole Union.

On the hon. Lady’s central suggestion that leaving the European Union has led to a diminution of workers available within the economy, that simply is not true. We have just seen figures published showing that net migration was over 500,000 last year and that 1 million people entered the UK last year. They are very substantial numbers. The Home Office issued 350,000 work visas last year. We are ultimately a small country with finite resources, limited housing and pressure on public services. It is right that the Government take their responsibilities seriously, take decisions in the round and try, over time, to bring down net migration.

The seasonal agricultural worker scheme exists to fill in some gaps. The choice of 40,000 does appear to have been broadly borne out by the evidence that we are close to the end of the year and there are still 1,400 places outstanding, so the decision made by my predecessors has been broadly correct. We are in the process of analysing whether we need to continue or expand it next year, and I will make a statement on that very soon.

Horticultural operations around Lichfield will, I think, be very reassured by what my right hon. Friend has said today. When I voted for Brexit, I voted for sovereignty. I certainly did not vote to say that we should not have immigration—with a name like Fabricant, which originates in France, I would certainly not be against that. It is illegal immigration that we all object to. Is the Home Office investigating other processes to get seasonal workers in the UK, for example the system that the SNP representative, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), spoke about for a two-year validity?

I am sympathetic to the proposal that we create a scheme that is of multi-year duration, enabling employers to plan over the longer term. We have just been through one or two of the most exceptional years in which access to labour was heavily reduced as a result of covid and travel restrictions, but now would seem to be a sensible time to explore whether we can create a longer-term scheme that gives industry the certainty it requires. We also need to be working closely with the agricultural sector itself, to ensure that it is embracing automation and new technologies, and training the next generation of British workers to enter the sector and enjoy successful careers. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we have 5 million economically inactive people in this country and we need to draw on our domestic labour force as much as possible.

A former chief of MI5, the noble Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, has called for an increase in visas for seasonal workers to enhance national security, ensuring that the UK produces its own food. Can the Minister confirm that food production is a matter of national security? The Minister referred to a statement that was imminent. Can he say what specific work has been undertaken across Government to ensure that we have a scheme that is evidence based and properly resourced for seasonal workers?

The events of the past few years have taught us all the importance of resilience in many different respects, including food security. That is a factor that we at the Home Office take into consideration, as I know does the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as we enter into regular discussions. I will be making an announcement with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs very soon, so that we can give as much confidence and certainty as possible to the industry.

However, to return to the remarks that I have made on a number of occasions, this year’s quota of 40,000 does not appear to be wildly out of sync with the industry’s needs, as it appears that we will end the year with about 40,000 certificates having been applied for. Given that the scheme is either at that level or even undersubscribed, it is difficult to make the case for a very significant increase in the number of places for next year. However, I will not prejudice the decision that we will come to, and we are sympathetic to the clear labour shortages and issues that some parts of the industry are experiencing.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on securing this important urgent question. The seasonal worker visa scheme is simply one symptom of a broader disease, which is that we do not have an immigration system that is designed to produce the workforce that different sectors need. Let me bring to the Minister’s attention another area that has been a problem for years: the need for crew for fishing boats. We finally have a visa scheme, but we are still not getting the crew because of the level of the written English language test that they are required to pass. Even when Ministers introduce schemes, the implementation by officials still thwarts the industry’s needs and the policy of Ministers.

I am very alive to those issues. I will shortly meet a delegation from the fishing industry that has been organised at the request of other Members. If the right hon. Gentleman would like to join that, I would be more than happy to extend the invitation.

Farm businesses across the south-west are facing a double whammy of crises: rising energy costs are putting their prices up and a shortage of labour is pushing many farmers to the brink. They are looking for an immigration system that means that crops will not rot in the fields—it is as simple as that. They are not interested in the total cap; they just want the output. Will the Minister set, as a test for the policy, that in order for it to be successful, no crops—whether fruit, vegetables or ornamental flowers —will be ploughed into the field next year? That is the metric of success that farmers want from the Minister. Will he set that as his metric on whether the policy works or is a failure?

We take into account all those considerations in formulating the policy, and we need to consider other factors as well. We need to ensure that we draw on our domestic workforce as much as we can, and that we do not always reach for foreign labour. We also need to ensure that those coming to the country comply with the scheme. As I said, that is broadly correct, but there are a significant minority who do not, including several hundred who claim asylum each year. That is rightly a concern for the Home Office and we need to consider that when choosing the ultimate number of individuals to participate in the scheme. I know that the hon. Member will appreciate that.

There are just 16 days to Christmas and the National Farmers Union is reporting that food will be left rotting in the fields and that poultry cannot be slaughtered. What innovative extra things can the Minister do to get that food on the shelves and to help keep rising prices down for struggling families?

The scheme exists for exactly that purpose. At the danger of repeating myself, having a quota of 40,000 has proved to be approximately what the industry requires. The other thing that Opposition Members could do to ensure that food gets to our tables this Christmas is to have a word with their union paymasters, because Border Force officials, sadly, are going on strike over the Christmas period, which will have a significant impact on the operation of our ports and airports.

Northern Ireland’s fishing industry, in places such as Kilkeel and Ardglass, is at risk of decimation because seasonal workers have not been included on the exemption list so far. That puts at risk the whole supply chain. If there is nothing to land and process, there is nothing for our distributors and nothing for our magnificent hospitality sector to put on its menus. Will the Minister confirm whether Northern Ireland fishing industry workers will go on the exemption list? Will he further explore the possibility of regional visas, because there are substantial differences not only in types of economic activity, but in salaries around the regions of the UK?

I will shortly be meeting representatives from the Northern Ireland fishing sector. I think the issue arose in a Westminster Hall debate that the hon. Lady organised, so if she would like to participate, I am more than happy to extend an invitation to her. From the data that I have seen, I do not think that there are material differences in the wages and labour challenges in the different nations of the UK, or at least not such as to warrant the very significant change of having different immigration rules and procedures in different parts of the UK.

Have Ministers consulted supermarkets and other UK retailers? How are their concerns about the risks that the visa presents of human rights abuses and bondage in supply chains being addressed?

A key priority for me and for the Department is to ensure that those who come to the UK under the scheme do so legitimately and are properly looked after by their employers. For that reason, we ensure that the operators of the scheme are licensed by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority—that is a very important element of the scheme. In considering its future, we continue to review the number of individuals who claim asylum, make modern slavery applications and so on.

Unsurprisingly, I too want to ask a question about the fishing sector, which has opportunities and jobs available but is having great difficulties filling them. I participated in the Westminster Hall debate with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and asked the same question—it is in Hansard. In our discussions afterwards, I also asked the Minister about a meeting with the fish producer organisations to discuss how we can use the present visa system. They are offering £25,000, with accommodation and food, and have put forward positive suggestions to address the English language capability issue. I am very encouraged by what the Minister has said about the meeting. May I respectfully ask him to let us have it as soon as possible? The POs want to meet before Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman was the originator of the meeting, which is now growing into a fairly substantial one—we will have to get a larger room. I will make sure that it is in the diary as soon as possible. I look forward to meeting him and other concerned colleagues.