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Fruit and Vegetable Harvest

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 30 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that any fruit and vegetables ready for harvest during the COVID-19 pandemic are harvested.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. We are mobilising a British workforce to help farmers. The Pick for Britain website is a recently launched joint Defra and industry initiative to support this effort, alongside the DWP’s Find a Job website, to signpost roles and guidance to workers and employers. We will continue to work with growers so that customer demand for excellent British fruit and vegetables is met.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I have seen the website; the level of publicity is very low at the moment and not many people know about it. The cheap wages that have been paid over the years to mostly migrant workers have been what I am prepared to call “the dirty little secret”. What wages are the Government considering paying to the army of British people who are going to be taken on board? What is going to happen to fruit and vegetable prices in the shops, and how will that impact on families who are already struggling to eat anything, let alone a healthy diet?

My Lords, there is going to be a more fulsome public-facing launch of the campaign to highlight the roles available from late May onwards and to encourage people to apply. Agribusiness must comply with current UK employment law. As I said in my earlier reply, we are all very conscious of the nutritional value of British fruit and vegetables and of the importance of their being available at a respectable price.

My Lords, what discussions have taken place with the devolved institutions with a view to sourcing workers who could help to harvest these perishable commodities, which are of great benefit to people who might find themselves in food poverty during this Covid-19 pandemic?

I have asked about the situation in Northern Ireland and DAERA has said that it will look for its own local solutions. Clearly, we want to work with the devolved Administrations. Northern Ireland welcomes the information sharing which we will undertake.

My Lords, at a time when we all need healthy, fresh, nutritious food, what are the Government doing to promote to the British public the range of employment opportunities available, assisting growers in harvesting their produce and getting it to market and on the table at a reasonable price?

My Lords, that is precisely why we have launched Pick for Britain and the DWP Find a Job website. This will be escalated. We think that currently, there is sufficient labour on farms, but there will be a peak in late May and therefore much more work. A public-facing campaign will be launched so that many more people are aware of this and of the demand in their local areas.

My Lords, in the short term it is vital that all steps be taken to make sure that crops are planted and picked this year, but has the Minister seen reports of a huge expansion in horticultural technology and automation in the United States because President Trump has curtailed cheap immigrant labour? What can the Government do to give a big boost to horticultural automation and technology in this country?

It is important that we advance technology to bring about improvements and more sustainable production. The government-funded transforming food production initiative and sustainable productivity schemes are all about increasing automation. I was interested to read of Tiptree and the University of Essex developing a robotic strawberry harvester, for instance.

The Minister referred to customer demand and the health benefits of consuming fruit and vegetables. What are the Government doing to encourage the consumption of fruit and vegetables? The 5 A Day campaign has been in place for the past 20 years, yet the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that there has been no increase in fruit and vegetable consumption over the past 10 years and that it still remains well below the 5-a-day target. What are the Government going to do now to get people to eat this wonderful British food?

The noble Lord is right that more needs to be done. We do not eat enough fruit and vegetables but, at the same time, the Pick for Britain initiative—and I think we will find much greater awareness as we reach the peak of the growing season—means that we can absolutely use this opportunity to encourage the British consumer to buy and eat this excellent British produce.

My Lords, the Government seem to be relying on an army of furloughed staff to come forward to pick the UK harvest this year, but the furlough scheme is currently available only until the end of June. What will happen when those staff go back to their original jobs? How can he be confident that we will have enough pickers now and in the long term? Will there be enough volunteers and, if not, what is the plan B?

The Pick for Britain website and all that we are doing there is designed precisely to ensure that the point of the noble Baroness’s last question does not take place. We are clear that we want more people to come forward, particularly in their local areas; we think that students will have an important role to play. We are asking growers to put their vacancies on the website, so that there is a much greater range of opportunities. We will certainly work to ensure that those who continue to be furloughed—from what I am hearing, there will be waiters, chefs, hotel staff, students and landscape workers—are able to make a major contribution to this harvest.

My Lords, eastern Europeans account for 70% of the returnee pickers for one of the UK’s leading producers of berries, based here in Godalming. What are the Government doing to ensure that a sufficient number of those skilled pickers are able to travel, so that they can work alongside the hoped-for increase in UK pickers once the peak harvest starts at the end of next month?

My Lords, a number of seasonal workers were able to come here before the virus took hold and they will clearly be important. But, as I say, we are embarking on the Pick for Britain campaign and, given the on-farm training that will be provided, asking people to come forward. We are confident that people will do so. A lot of interest has been expressed. For instance, the G’s salads group, one of the largest lettuce and celery producers in Europe, now has 100 British people working on its asparagus farms. That is going to move up to 500 British people. We have to concentrate on this and ensure that we get people to come and help.

My Lords, strong evidence is emerging that shows an alarming link between death rates from Covid-19 and obesity. Given that we have the second highest levels of obesity in Europe, after Malta, and that one in five people now presents with a disability in the UK, does my noble friend agree that we can turn this dreadful crisis into an opportunity for his department, and for the Government overall, to prioritise the vital role of our farmers and growers in producing healthier food—real food—for a healthier nation?

It should always be our aspiration to have a healthy nation and healthy food. I always champion the production of good British food, across all sectors, and we need to work on that route ever more closely.

My Lords, one thing that I did when I was Ken Livingstone’s food adviser was to put together a sustainable strategy for London. This will of course be relevant to all our cities in the future. The point was that local food is the best way of feeding a city. Are the Government perhaps considering expanding allotments, or encouraging farmers around our big cities to grow slightly different foods?

This is a very good point. Within UK horticulture, I am particularly interested in the range of parts of our country that produce specialised varieties of food. That relationship with local communities is very strong, which is why I am keen to ensure that local people come forward when growers put these job vacancies on the website.

My Lords, that concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. Apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. The Virtual Proceedings will resume at 12.15 pm for the Private Notice Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, which I remind Members is on safe- guarding vulnerable children in care. At 1 pm, there will be a debate on the fundraising and organisational challenges faced by the charitable and voluntary sector. At 4.30 pm, there will be a debate on the number of people living in poverty and unable to meet their basic needs. Finally, it is expected that a ministerial Statement on the repatriation of UK nationals will be repeated at a convenient point after 6 pm.

I sincerely thank all the questioners and Ministers who took part. Thank you very much indeed. We will go into new territory next week, but I will tell you about that on Tuesday.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.