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Agriculture: Foreign Workers

Volume 783: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what discussions they have had with farmers and growers on access to foreign workers; and whether they intend to reintroduce the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. We are fully seized of this issue now and for the future. These matters have been discussed by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State with key stakeholders over recent weeks. The Government will commission advice from the Migration Advisory Committee. Working with business and communities, we will develop a future migration system which works for all and meets labour market needs in this sector.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. From his regular meetings with farmers and growers, he will be aware of the critical shortage of vegetable pickers and growers, with a 17% shortfall this year—in May alone there were 1,500 job vacancies. Will my noble friend assure the House today that he and the Home Office will review the seasonal agricultural workers scheme with the utmost urgency with a view to its reintroduction? If we have a weak pound, as we have at the moment, and if we have an uncertain position with returners, in particular, who are down by 50%, and with new workers coming to pick from the European Union, will my noble friend assure us that this will be reviewed with regard to the rest of the season and, in particular, to next year and the years ahead?

My Lords, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is kept under careful, ongoing review. Indeed, when it was stopped in 2013, Defra established a SAWS transition working group, which continues to bring industry and government together to monitor the situation. I absolutely agree with my noble friend: it is very important that we work very closely with this sector. We have wonderful produce in this country; it is something that I know the Secretary of State and the Minister of State are fully seized upon and we are working not only, obviously, for the harvest of next year but the harvests later on—

Oh. I am afraid, my Lords, that there is plenty of time. I want to reiterate that it is taken very seriously indeed.

My Lords, is not this gratuitous delay on the part of the Government damaging our agricultural, horticultural and fruit-picking industries unnecessarily? Is not the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, quite right that the seasonal workers scheme worked perfectly well? People came and then they left. There was no problem. This is not an immigration problem at all. It is a problem of seasonal workers doing essential jobs for our basic agricultural, horticultural and growing industries.

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, from 2007 to 2013, the scheme was for Romanian and Bulgarian people who wished to come here. Obviously, there has been a scheme since after the Second World War, but that is precisely what it was. After 2013, there was full freedom of movement for those countries. There are 171,000 more EU nationals working in this country now than there were a year ago. The point is that there are many, very welcome EU nationals coming. Obviously, with the review that the Migration Advisory Committee is undertaking, we need to see what further work we need to do to ensure that we have labour to produce our very important produce.

My Lords, I live in Godalming, where we have one of the largest soft fruit farms in the country, employing 2,500 people. The owner has said that the business will collapse without access to EU workers. Does the Minister agree with me that retaining access to the single market is the best way to ensure that we have a future supply of affordable homegrown soft fruits?

My Lords, what will be essential to ensure that our wonderful produce is picked is that we have the labour force to do it. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, is right: we need to review where we are, because there will be changed arrangements. Having met some people who are running a fruit farm, I am fully seized of the importance of the labour force that comes overwhelmingly from parts of eastern Europe, which we have very much welcomed and is so important in gathering in our harvest.

My Lords, we are leaving the European Union, so I do not really see what that has to do with it. The original seasonal agricultural workers scheme operated with people coming into this country from 130 nations. It was essentially universal. They came, they worked and they went home. Migration has nothing to do with it. Why are we not opening up our vision, if we are leaving the EU, to say, “Let’s widen the scheme”? It has nothing to do with migration. We had a perfectly workable scheme until it changed. I fully admit I was partly responsible. I used it at MAFF and then when I got to the Home Office I had to start closing it down because of what was happening with our EU accession partners. But the fact is, we are leaving, so it does not have to be European based any more.

My Lords, that is precisely why the Home Office and Defra have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to look at this with regard to the long-term needs of an important sector of our agricultural industry. That is one of the things I am looking forward to hearing about. As I said, to put it in context, between 2007 and 2013 the only element of the scheme was to deal with the Romanian and Bulgarian situation.

My Lords, I declare my interest in farming. Will the Minister make it easier for seasonal workers to come in from Australia and New Zealand to clip sheep? Is he aware that my sheep are still waiting to be clipped because my British sheep clippers are getting older and they have a big backlog this year?

My Lords, this is not about just seasonal workers or unskilled workers. As the Minister will know, some 80% of vets in our abattoirs, who enable them to operate with the right welfare standards, are EU citizens. How are we going to retain those skilled and much-required people who are currently keeping our food processing industry moving?

I am most grateful to the noble Lord because I was at the BVA and RCVS reception yesterday, where I know a number of noble Lords were also in attendance. This is an important issue and an element of the negotiations that we want to deal with as promptly as possible. Yes, we do rely on and warmly welcome the support we have from EU national vets, who are hugely important to us.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister please confirm that the migration advisory group will consult the Commonwealth Secretariat and Secretary-General in relation to opportunities for workers to come from Commonwealth countries, as there is a great expectation that there will be new opportunities within the Commonwealth?

I am certainly pleased with and will take back what my noble friend has said. It is an important point to make.

My Lords, historically the agriculture sector has been one with low wages and exploitation. Will the Minister commit, as my party has done, to reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board? I would also like to raise the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which does a fantastic job. Its remit has expanded but its resources have gone down so, with the potential problems following Brexit, will the Minister look at increasing the resources for that excellent organisation?

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness has raised this during the Queen’s Speech debate—I read an excerpt from Hansard. The agency does a good job in monitoring living standards and certainly ensures that workers receive at least the national living wage. It is not alone in this sector: there is the Association of Labour Providers and the Fresh Produce Consortium. All are working hard to ensure that the standards we would all wish for people who come to this country to work are the best that they can be. I cannot promise to accede to the points that she has made, but it is certainly important that these organisations are working hard to ensure that there is well-being among people who come here—and many people come back. One thing I have noticed at many of the fruit farms is families and people coming back to this country. We sometimes beat ourselves, but this country is seen as a good place to work in.

The Minister is of course aware that asylum seekers who come to the UK are not allowed to work for the first 12 months. If that was overturned and perhaps reduced to six months, would it not help the labour force considerably?

My Lords, again I cannot promise, but I will certainly put that point to colleagues. The employment situation in this sector is seasonal. Part of the issue, and the point of this Question, is that we have seasonal demand for people to come and help us with our soft fruit and vegetables, and their processing. I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I do not think that I can comment any further.

Does my noble friend agree that these people are not only seasonal but highly skilled? They are often written off as unskilled workers, but they contribute something essential to our agricultural and horticultural industry.

My Lords, this produce is very vulnerable and the skills in picking fruit are therefore important—it is very perishable. There is, of course, skill in ensuring that we get our soft fruit in safely. We are now self-sufficient in strawberries for much of the year, which are a wonderful product, and there are many whom we rely on in the workforce from the European Union.

My Lords, apart from some of the emerging practical problems that have already been raised today on seasonal workers, and despite what the Minister has said, is the real issue not the fact that these EU workers no longer feel welcome here? Is it not the case that this is a problem entirely of the Government’s making? They have sought to make these workers bargaining chips in the EU negotiations and have said nothing publicly about the value they bring to our economy and wider society. It is no wonder if fruit growers and so on are reporting that people who have come time and again, year after year, now say they will no longer come. They do not feel welcome here.

My Lords, I refer the noble Baroness to what I just said, which was that 171,000 more people from the EU have come to work here than there were a year ago—171,000. That does not suggest to me a climate in which people feel unhappy or unwelcome. They are very welcome and are vital in this industry and in others where they work. I honestly do not think that what she is saying is borne out by the labour market statistics. It is very important in this climate as well to remember that saying people are unwelcome can often engender the sorts of comments that I know all of your Lordships would say are reprehensible and undesirable. We need to create a climate in which this country sees the value of people coming here and working here, often doing jobs that some of our own people have, in recent times, not sought to do. They are very important to us.