[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
[Relevant document: Seventh Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2016-17, Feeding the nation: labour constraints, HC 1009.]
Before we begin proceedings, I invite any Member who so wishes to remove their jacket, and their tie as well, if they wish. It is certainly very hot in here.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. There are two points to this debate: first, to highlight the current problems experienced by many in the horticulture and agriculture sectors in recruiting enough seasonal workers; and, secondly, to propose a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme after Brexit and ensure that the industry has enough seasonal workers to pick British fruit and veg.
It is no secret that this country relies on foreign labour to pick its fruit and veg. Some 80,000 seasonal workers pick and process British fruit and veg every year. The majority of them are from the European Union. Many are from Romania and Bulgaria. For better or worse, that is the current situation. Without those workers, British fruit and veg could rot in British fields, and that is the last thing we want. The problem is that seasonal EU workers are getting harder to recruit. Brexit and uncertainty about the status of EU migrants in Britain have played a part. Improving living standards in eastern Europe, particularly Poland, mean that fewer workers are attracted to Britain for higher pay. Perhaps the biggest factor in the labour shortages is the fall in the pound against the euro. The reduction has been between 17% and 20%.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the soft fruit industry in this country is a big success story. One of the major producers in my constituency is 77 staff short at the moment. That means leaving fruit unpicked. There is a real risk that this major success story could be undermined unless we get a good new seasonal agricultural workers scheme deal in place for the post-Brexit situation.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. We have an extremely successful soft fruit industry. In parts of the country, we have very good vegetable growing, too. By their nature, those crops are perishable, so we have to have the labour there at the right time.
The fall in the value of the pound has immediately made work in the UK less attractive to EU migrants. It is time that the large retailers did something. If they do not buy British fruit and veg, they will have to buy it from the continent and pay more for it because of the value of our currency. It is high time that they stepped up to the plate and ensured we are getting a good price for an excellent crop that has nowhere near as many food miles.
Labour shortages are already having serious consequences. A recent BBC survey of members of British Summer Fruits and the British Leafy Salads Association showed that one in five growers already has fewer pickers than they need. Last year, when the Select Committee did an inquiry, an asparagus grower told us that he employed 900 staff. Those staff are needed when the asparagus is fit. A full 78% of respondents said that recruitment had been more difficult in the past year. That shows that the problem might be getting worse and the situation getting tighter.
A separate National Farmers Union survey from May reported a shortfall of some 1,500 workers. It also reported fewer returning workers in the first five months of the year. That paints a worrying picture. In the short term, it means that some food might simply not be picked. It also means higher prices in the shops for the fruit and veg that is picked. In the long term, if British farmers struggle to source the labour they need, that may delay decisions to invest. That could be a real problem. It could even export jobs and agriculture and horticulture industries abroad. We must not export our industry.
We also need greater flexibility in our labour market. Constituents come to see me because they often find it difficult going on and off benefits with short-term work. They get that work, but if they cannot get any long-term work, they have to go back on benefits. They are not always encouraged to get those jobs, and we want to see more of our own labour out there in the fields.
I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important topic. I bring the Chamber’s attention to my declaration of interest as a major shareholder in a vegetable processing company based in my constituency. Does he agree that businesses such as those in North West Leicestershire are based in areas with sparse populations, but very low unemployment? In my constituency, unemployment is less than 1%. Not only does local labour not necessarily want to take short-term, insecure work, but they are not available to do it, because unemployment is so low.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is partly because of the success of our economy that we have so much going on and that we need this labour. My constituency has the same situation as his, with very low unemployment. I do not have as much vegetable growing, but I have meat and poultry processing, which are almost entirely done by central and eastern European labour, and that is an issue. We want to ensure that we can find as much home-grown labour as we can, but we have also got to have accessibility to labour from Europe and, in the future, probably from beyond Europe.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He allows me to segue neatly on to an issue that does not just affect agriculture. We have labour from beyond Europe in fishing. There are fishing boats on the west coast of Scotland and in Northern Ireland that are tied up at the moment due to a lack of people. One boat alone has lost £100,000 in uncaught fish. People are willing to come back from the Philippines to the boats they used to work on. The Scottish community is one thing—everyone says yes in the Philippines and Scotland—but if one man in London says no, we cannot get the people in. The Immigration Minister has a big role to play here.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point on fishing. As we leave the European Union, there should be greater opportunities for fishing and catches, but we need the labour to do that. Going out to fish is not always seen as the nicest job in the world. We have probably got to look not only at labour availability in the long term, but the types of fishing boats we are using and everything. There is a lot to be done, but we need labour.
This April, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a report on labour constraints in agriculture. We came to a clear conclusion: the sheer weight of evidence from a range of farming and horticulture businesses was that they have big problems in retaining labour. We did not necessarily share the Government’s confidence that the agriculture sector does not have a problem. Some of the figures that the Home Office Minister provided were perhaps six or nine months out of date, and the situation is getting tighter all the time. Simply put, the challenge will become a crisis if the Government do not swiftly take measures. The challenge will only become more acute after Brexit, when the free movement of workers ends.
A strategy is urgently needed to ensure that British agriculture has the workers it needs in the short to medium term. Many people ask why British people cannot do the jobs. We all agree we want to see more British workers in the industry in the long term. It is not sustainable to rely on almost exclusively foreign labour for seasonal jobs. We need to think about a long-term shift now. Unemployment is now at 4.6% nationally. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) said, in many constituencies it is much lower. In fact, it is at its lowest since 1995.
In many constituencies we are reaching almost full employment; it could be said we are a victim of our great success. The truth is there are not necessarily enough workers who are able and want to do the jobs. In my own constituency in Devon where agriculture is a key part of the local economy, there simply is not the demand for such seasonal labour among local people, so foreign labour must play a part.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate this afternoon. He has mentioned only in passing a word that has two syllables: one begins with “Brex” and the other begins with “it”. That clueless exercise is at the bottom and at the heart of the difficulties that we have now. The ending of freedom of movement has created massive difficulties and we will not get access to labour. What does his report say about how freedom of movement helps assist the situation?
There is no doubt that freedom of movement helps to assist the required labour for these industries. In a minute I will talk about having a seasonal workers scheme that I think will help not only those in the European Union, but those who come from beyond the European Union, if they wish to come and work here. The one thing that the Brexit vote showed is that many people who wanted to leave the European Union might have done so because they wanted some control over the number of people coming in and out. I do not think they were necessarily against people coming here to work; I think they wanted to know who was coming and who was leaving. Perhaps that is one of the policies that we will have to get in place.
The alternative is to see food go unpicked and our industry potentially relocated abroad, which we really do not want. We want a pro-British policy that keeps our industries here with enough workers to make sure we pick the fruit and veg.
So how do we solve the problem? Luckily, there is a solution that does not require unfettered free movement within the EU and addresses the need for specific skills in each sector: namely, a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme. The scheme has run in various guises since 1945. In short, it allows non-British workers to work in UK agriculture on a temporary basis. The last version of the scheme was closed in 2013, prior to the free movement of labour from Bulgaria and Romania.
Once Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, a new seasonal scheme will become essential to ensure British agriculture has enough labour. A new scheme has three main advantages: first, it would allow the Government to control the numbers. It would not be the free movement of old. Instead, it would allow the UK to import skills and labour for specific sectors of the economy. Secondly, we could extend the new seasonal scheme to EU and non-EU workers. That would give the UK wider scope to source the agricultural workforce it needs. We would not need to rely so heavily on two or three EU nations for seasonal labour. Thirdly, a scheme could be designed so that applicants have to have a confirmed job before entering the UK. That would fit with what looks like the likely immigration model for Britain after leaving the EU.
In giving evidence to the Committee the previous Immigration Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), stated it would take five to six months to establish a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme. That means it is too late to establish a scheme for this summer’s harvest, but it may be an option for 2018 if labour shortages are still a problem. We are seeing a tightening in the labour market.
I am sure my hon. Friend will know from conversations with farmers that they need to make decisions years in advance of growing fruit. Is it not the case that farmers need positive signals from the Government sooner rather than later and preferably a pilot scheme next year rather than a wait and see approach, which is what we have heard up till now?
My hon. Friend makes a good point regarding a pilot scheme. I am fond of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, but I do not always share his confidence that Government can move quickly to make sure that everything is in place within a few months. We ought to plan ahead much more. A pilot scheme next year, or an even wider scheme, is essential. Here we are in July 2017; two years will pass incredibly quickly and we need to be ready.
On the labour shortage problem, the new scheme in 2018 would allow workers from outside the EU to top up any shortages that EU workers were not able to fill. Secondly, it would ensure the UK is match fit for Brexit after March 2019 and could easily put a new system in place. There would be no cliff edge for British agriculture industries in finding labour because a scheme would be ready to operate from summer 2019.
British food and veg industries are not yet in crisis, but there are signs that the labour situation is getting tighter and we need to take that on board. The Government must take the necessary steps now to ensure we do not face a labour cliff edge in 2019. A sensible, proportionate seasonal agricultural workers scheme is essential to make sure British agriculture has enough workers. The Minister’s family has done much in the fruit and vegetable industry, so he understands the need for an availability of labour. As I said earlier, we also want to make sure our own labour market for our own workers is as flexible as it can be so that people are not worried about leaving benefits to get a seasonal job and then not being able to get on benefits again. That is an essential consideration.
If the Government were caught out, the consequences could be severe. We want more fruit and vegetables grown in this country—not less—and we want our businesses to thrive. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing what plans the Government have in place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gapes. I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on his timely report and the way that he chairs with distinction the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. We are almost certain he will be returned to his post and look forward to his being elevated once again to such a robust post.
I hate using the word “peak” when we describe phenomena or an event, but we are currently experiencing peak strawberry. It is the middle of July, Wimbledon is in full session and everybody across the country is enjoying that wonderful symbol of the British summer. It is great that people are consuming vast quantities of the great healthy produce that is produced the length and breadth of the whole of the United Kingdom. Some of my colleagues represent large areas that produce berry fruit and other great things that are a part of the seasonal agricultural scene right across the UK. However, it all pales into insignificance when compared with what we have in Perthshire: the finest soft berry fruit farming that can be experienced anywhere in the whole of the United Kingdom. Nothing comes close to the Perthshire strawberry and the Perthshire raspberry.
The hon. Gentleman is making some fine points, but I am afraid I cannot let that pass. It is clear that Kent is the garden of England, and although I am sure Scotland offers many great things, Kent is truly the home of the berry.
We will leave it at this: the hon. Gentleman and I have a difference of opinion about which British berries have superiority. Of course it is Perthshire berries. The town of Blairgowrie in my constituency is almost synonymous with the soft fruit industry, and particularly with strawberries and raspberries. Much of the heritage of east Perthshire—Strathmore and the Carse of Gowrie—is wound together with tales of the berry farmers and stories of luggies, cleeks and dreels.
The nature of berry farming has changed significantly since those days because of different cultivation methods, changes in the industry and, of course, the increasing demands of the major supermarkets, which have such an impact on the how soft fruit farmers must design their activities and businesses. Polytunnels are used in Perthshire. I represent the eighth or ninth largest constituency in the United Kingdom and, as I drive around at this time of year, it is covered with them. People enjoying the wonderful experience of driving through Perthshire may not find polytunnels its most attractive feature, but they help to make sure of the crop. The cropping period is now extended, and lasts from about April to the end of October. It is remarkable to be able to get a punnet of strawberries even before the Easter holidays, and still be able to enjoy some when the leaves are falling from the trees. That is what increased use of polytunnels has done, and we should welcome it.
What remains the same is the fact that the crop must be planted, maintained and harvested. When I was a young lad, that work was traditionally done by local people. The young Wishart would enjoy a summer holiday picking raspberries and strawberries. I would put them in my luggie and make sure I had a little bit of a supplement to my pocket money. That was a feature of life for many local people, but those days are long gone. Practically all the fruit is now lifted by people from the other side of Europe, on whom producers rely almost exclusively to get their crop in. That remains an important exercise, and it is crucial for us in Scotland, where the food and drink industry is our base export. Food and drink is running out of the door. Scottish food and drink is probably one of the biggest export industries of the whole UK.
I seem to remember that when I went strawberry picking as a young boy the strawberries were grown on the ground, and it was backbreaking work. Have the Perthshire berry growers adopted the same practices as in the midlands, where the fruit is grown in a substrate at waist height? Farmers appreciate that labour is valuable and that they must make good use of it. That hugely increases pickers’ productivity; but even having taken those important steps forward, we are still short of labour.
The hon. Gentleman is right and that is a good point. Going around polytunnels now, one can see that everything is raised. I am sure the hon. Gentleman respects and appreciates the fact that the work is labour-intensive, and there is no way of getting around that. Some of the producers and berry farmers in my constituency have considered all sorts of ingenious measures and machines to try to find other ways of doing things, but people are still left picking the crop from the plant. We must accept that that will continue to be a feature of the activity on berry farms.
There is huge concern about the future. Soft fruit farmers in my constituency are increasingly alarmed at the fact that there seems to be no strategy to allay concerns about the availability of labour. I was waiting for the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton to mention Brexit, because it is all about that, and the ending of freedom of movement. Getting rid of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme almost worked. I remember the days of seasonal agricultural workers and participated in several debates when the scheme was being cancelled. We were told it was not necessary any more, because we were all part of the European Union. The accession nations—the Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians who were traditionally part of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—were now part of the EU and could come in to take part in that activity. They cannot any more, because this clueless Brexit and the ending of the freedom of movement has ensured that it will not happen further.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an urgency about this? In my constituency a company has halted expansion plans until something can be sorted out with regard to availability of labour. It cannot expand its business in the current situation.
Absolutely. I will come to that very point. The issue is time-limited and we must ensure that we get something in place. A feature of the Government’s approach to Brexit is the cluelessness at the heart of it: they fail to accept and recognise some of the consequences of going ahead in such folly, and the way it extends to agriculture—particularly seasonal agriculture. We are left high and dry because all the people whom we relied on to come and pick the fruit will now be limited by the daft ending of freedom of movement, and we will not be able to take advantage of it. That is why it is doubly important to cobble together some sort of scheme, so that farmers like those in my constituency and in North Norfolk are not left high and dry.
We know the difficulty. This month a report from the trade organisation British Summer Fruits predicted that the cost of strawberries and raspberries could soar by 50% if Brexit makes it harder for growers to recruit overseas. We heard earlier from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that, if the problem is not resolved, the crop will simply go unharvested and wither on the vine. Such decisions would be disastrous for Scotland’s food and drink sector and its worldwide reputation for quality produce. This is all about the Government’s immigration obsession, and the way the whole debate about Brexit seemed to be focused entirely on stopping freedom of movement. Protecting freedom of movement is vital for the Scottish agricultural sector, and EU workers are important to virtually all parts of the modern farming industry.
The wonderful James Hutton Institute is in my constituency, in the Carse of Gowrie, and it does great work on genetics to improve crops so that they are more resilient and pest-hardy. Most of that work is done by EU nationals. The scientists working in the James Hutton Institute come from across the EU. Thank you, Conservative Government: that will probably be ended almost immediately. The involvement of EU nationals goes from there right down to the fields, where people from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria pick the crop. We are totally dependent on freedom of movement to ensure that the whole sector, from science research institutes to the pickers, can depend on people from the EU. That makes it doubly important to get things together.
As things stand, there is a danger that the UK Government will abandon something that is good for Scotland—membership of the single market—to restrict something else that is good for it: freedom of movement. That is another example of the absurdity of this clueless hard Brexit, and of the case the Government make. It is a good demonstration of why the Government must think again and change their mind and approach.
I have heard something encouraging today. I have been to a couple of debates on this topic before, and, with all due respect to my Conservative friends, we usually hear from them—the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) today said the opposite—that local people can do the work instead, so we do not need European nationals, as if a tap can be turned on and we can somehow create a volley of people to come and do it. We know that that cannot happen. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire mentioned low unemployment. There is low unemployment in my constituency, too. Another thing about the soft fruit sector is that farms where seasonal agricultural work happens are in prosperous, rural and hard-to-reach areas. There is not a huge hinterland of people available to do the work. Thank goodness we are not hearing the usual nonsense from Conservative Members that we will just give the work to local people. We know that that is not possible and will not happen, and I am pleased we have got to that point.
We need to hear from the Minister that he will announce a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that it did not work too badly in the past. When I was a new Member of Parliament in 2001, it was still in operation. It was useful and helpful. I have been looking at the figures. Some 21,250 visas were issued in the last year of the scheme’s operation, for people who came to the UK for between five weeks and six months. As the National Farmers Union pointed out, there was a 98% return rate. All the concerns about immigration and people staying did not apply to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
It is worth pointing out the other benefits. One of the great pleasures and privileges of someone who has a constituency with soft fruit centres and berry-picking is to go to some of the cultural events. For example, in Perthshire, round about Blairgowrie, a number of the producers have ceilidhs and cultural evenings where people come in and speak. That is a great feature for young people—they are the brightest and the best from their countries, and they are coming across to experience the best of Scotland. They will leave Scotland with a favourable impression of our nation and hopefully at some point in the future will decide to come back for a vacation or a holiday. That is good for us—it is soft power at its very best, and it is something that we very much value as a feature of our community. It is good for the producer, it is good for the person that comes to harvest the fruit and it is good for the country. That is why we need a scheme as soon as possible.
I say to the Minister that the clock is ticking. Some 750 tonnes of Scottish soft-fruit production is hanging on the Brexit precipice. Autumn farmers need to start recruiting for next year, and there is no certainty about freedom of movement, the movement of labour or even a permit scheme to let workers into the country. Something will have to give.
Producers cannot plant what they cannot pick, so by next autumn, big decisions will have to be made, which could possibly involve ending soft fruit production in areas such as mine. The situation is absolutely urgent. If we do not go ahead, it will be disastrous for the fantastic produce that comes from my constituency, for Perthshire, for Scotland’s food and drink sector and for its worldwide reputation for quality produce. We could end up in a situation where, although we have a fantastic product, the summer shelves are stacked with foreign strawberries and raspberries, shipped into Scotland because we simply do not have the workers to pick what is hanging from the fruit trees in our own fields.
The solution lies in the hands of the Government. The rest of us can only savour those delicious Scottish strawberries and raspberries for as long as we can. We want to continue to enjoy them. I plead with the Minister to get a scheme together, give security to our producers and growers and ensure that everybody can continue to enjoy the wonderful symbol of our summer that is our strawberries and our raspberries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this debate. As he said, it is very timely. I congratulate him also on his work on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
I begin by pointing out to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) a couple of macro facts. There was a vote of 17.4 million last year to leave. I know his party do not like it, but we are going to leave. One of the issues was taking back control of our borders. The figures are pretty startling. Last week, our population hit a record number of 65.5 million. The Department for Communities and Local Government reckons that we need to provide housing for 243,000 new households every year for the next 22 years, which means building a new home every five minutes, night and day, to cope with the increase in population. That is one macro fact that Members have to recognise.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will just finish making the point, because I think it is relevant.
The other fact is that, far from banging on about Brexit, it is great pleasure to state that the economies in eastern Europe are really flying. Hungary is growing at about 4% and there has been a huge increase in wages. They have risen by 15% this year, and by 25% for skilled workers, and there has been a 20% rise in the Hungarian forint. Quite soon, there will not be wage differentials between Hungarian workers and western European workers.
There are similar major strategic changes in Poland. The economy there is flying, at 4% a year. Significantly, a 250,000 annual drop in the working-age population is putting pressure on Poland, which is already opening up visa schemes for 1.3 million temporary workers from Ukraine. We have to recognise that. It is great news that in Romania, which is very relevant to our discussions, economic growth is running at 5%. Civil servants have had a 25% pay rise. Their wages are increasing and their jobless rate is not far below Scandinavian levels. Those macro elements are completely out of the discussion on Brexit.
Where I would agree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is that the situation is a real problem. I saw it coming when I worked in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it has only got worse. The hon. Gentleman cited a survey from British Summer Fruits. It sees prices rising 35% to 50% because of labour shortages. The BBC did a survey that said that 78% of growers believed that recruitment has been harder. We are all hearing this, and it is not just in the fruit and veg industry; we are hearing it from those who work in abattoirs and those who work in tourism. Many rural industries are being affected.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about “taking back control”. He must have sympathy with the point I raised earlier: in Scotland we do not have control, because we have a system that is very centralised in London, deciding what we need and do not need, particularly if we want to take people from the Philippines. Switzerland, for example, can run a scheme where the 26 cantons control half the visas and the other half are controlled centrally. Is it not time that the UK changed its approach so that places such as Scotland can control their own destiny?
The hon. Gentleman’s party lost the argument when it lost the referendum. Scotland is a firm part of the UK. I think the control of borders is a policy area that should be in the hands of the nation state.
To get back to my not being surprised, the most angry people I met when I was the Secretary of State at DEFRA were the fruit farmers in Herefordshire, Somerset or Kent. I remember clearly going on a trip with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) to her constituency in Essex, where there is a wonderful, world-famous fruit packing, picking and jam-making company called Tiptree, which we probably all see on virtually every plane we fly on. That company was having real problems at that time with getting really skilled people to pick fruit. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, the picking has to be done at the right moment. There is a critical moment when fruit and veg has to be picked, or it is lost.
At that time, SAWS had already been stopped. From memory, before they had open access, the scheme brought in 21,250 Romanians and Bulgarians, who came to targeted destinations, with proper accommodation, good catering facilities, proper medical facilities and so on. They also had the requirement to go home at the end of the season. I remember that Tiptree was really struggling. I talked to various representatives of the industries at that time and we looked at all sorts of alternatives, some of which have been completely misrepresented in the press. There was talk of reviving the old tradition of urban citizens taking working holidays in the countryside, and seeing whether pensioners could do it. We looked at students. I worked closely with the Department for Work and Pensions. None of those options was really practical. We looked at them, but they were not really going anywhere.
The only real long-term solution, if we are to use domestic labour—the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made the right point when he said we all represent rural constituencies with very low rates of unemployment—is automation. Happily, near me, we have the University of Harper Adams, which is doing fantastic work on automated machinery. It will produce a crop in a field this year where a human being will not have entered that field from the moment that it was first touched. However, that is down the line. For the moment, I think we all agree that we have a real problem with our fruit and veg industry, and increasingly with our tourism industry, in finding labour.
We have the opportunity, and I look forward to it, once we get control back of our borders, to look well outside Europe for labour—we will have to. We are going to find—I have just cited the figures—that the Romanians and the Poles are probably going to stay at home. We had better wake up to that. It is absolutely vital that the Minister is working hard at DEFRA on a replacement seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
I would ask him not to do a straight replacement. I will cite one example, New Zealand, which has been running a recognised seasonal employers scheme since 2007. The World Bank has described it as a model for best practice. It has really worked; it has eased labour shortages in the horticulture sector, and the viticulture sector, which is growing very fast of course in New Zealand, while minimising the risks of overstaying and undercutting or displacement of local labour by immigrant labour.
There is a really strong focus in New Zealand on “New Zealand first” in the labour market. Our old seasonal agricultural workers scheme did not incorporate a resident labour market test, unlike the RSE, nor did it include measures of the type included in the RSE to prevent illegal overstaying. That is a really important difference. The number has increased from 8,000 to 10,800 Pacific islanders this year. They are provided places to work during the agricultural season, and mainly come from islands such as Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, for seven to 11 months.
The conditions are pretty strict. An employer must first register as a recognised seasonal employer. That is stronger than what we had: under our old legislation, SAWS, registration with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was optional for sole operators and compulsory only for multiple operators, depending on their recruitment arrangements.
New Zealand employers are required to take a number of reasonable steps to recruit New Zealanders to available positions. The language is pretty fierce. The main document given to employers says that they are required to take
“all reasonable steps to recruit and train New Zealanders for available positions before seeking to recruit non-New Zealand citizen or resident workers”,
and that they must
“not use a recruitment agent who seeks a commission from workers in exchange for securing an employment agreement, to recruit non-New Zealand citizen or resident workers”.
That is much more strict and puts more pressure on the employer than what we had.
The other really important thing is that employers are required to pay the market rate for work so there is no competition with domestic labour. “New Zealand first” really does help. Under the SAWS arrangements, SAWS operators were subject to inspection by the GLA and what was then the UK Border Agency. That included their pay systems. In New Zealand, farms are inspected, mainly by the operator, to ensure appropriate standards of health and safety, which is the main focus. Very importantly, employers must pay half the worker’s return air fare between New Zealand and their country of origin. Under SAWS, there was no requirement to pay any portion of the worker’s return air fare.
In New Zealand, employers must bear the cost of repatriating workers if they become illegal. Again, that was not the case under SAWS, although fines were eventually introduced. Importantly, workers under RSE are allowed to be re-employed in subsequent years, and there is a very strong record of their coming back, which I think is a real advantage for the disadvantaged economies from which they come. Although seasonal agricultural schemes around the world seem to use either a resident labour market test as a form of flow control, or a quota, New Zealand uses both. The policy has contributed very much to its development objectives with its Pacific neighbours.
I recommend that the Minister read the report by Professor Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, on New Zealand’s recognised seasonal employers scheme. Let me pick a key quote from a 2010 survey by the New Zealand Department of Labour, which is pretty festive about this. It said:
“Overall, the RSE Policy has achieved what it set out to do. The policy has provided employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries with access to a reliable and stable seasonal workforce. The labour supply crises of previous years have been avoided and employers can now plan and manage their businesses with confidence. As the policy enters its third year”—
this was back in 2010—
“there are indications many employers are now also benefiting from skilled labour as workers return for subsequent seasons. Significant productivity gains were reported in the second season, together with improvements in harvest quality.”
As I just said,
“Alongside the employer ‘wins’, Pacific workers and three Pacific states have benefited financially from participating in the RSE Policy.”
A World Bank report said:
“We find per capita incomes of households participating in the RSE to have increased by over 30% relative to the comparison groups in both countries.”
Another report found that 50% of workers returned in the next season, and that most—86.9%—returned to the same employer.
Australia’s seasonal worker programme, which I strongly recommend the Minister check out, is a similar scheme. It brings in 12,000 workers from Pacific islands. Workers come to Australia for between 14 weeks and six months. Employers must be approved by the Government; provide the Government with evidence of labour market testing; organise flights, transport and accommodation for workers; ensure a minimum of 30 hours of labour a week; and ensure that workers depart on the expiration of their visa.
It is vital that we look at introducing a replacement for SAWS. It should be tapered and temporary, and should ensure that British workers are not displaced or undercut by migrant workers while we wait for technology to catch up—that is the real future for domestic workers. Any replacement of SAWS must include a resident labour market test and be accompanied by robust safeguards against illegal overstaying. We need to start planning that now because, given that prosperity is improving in eastern Europe, as Members have said, workers are not going to come from there. We will happily have the whole world to choose from. Hopefully, people will come here and pick our wonderful soft fruit and vegetables.
To be fair to everyone, Mr Gapes, is there a time limit that we all have to observe?
I am not imposing a time limit, but I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman kept his remarks relatively brief.
The deadline is 4 pm, so we will work towards that.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for introducing the debate. I wish him well in his quest to be re-elected as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Without disrespect to any other hon. Member who runs for it, I have no doubt that no one else would fit the job so well and perform it with such ability. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I have already given him my commitment. I wholeheartedly support him in underlining the importance of seasonal agricultural workers to our agri-food industry.
I spoke on this subject at length in this Chamber in November. Some Members will be pleased to know that I do not intend to speak for too long today, since the Chair has asked us not to. However, the topic bears highlighting once again because of the urgency of the situation, which other right hon. and hon. Members have referred to. The agri-food industry is important not only in my constituency, but to every one of us across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
My constituency has a very strong agri-food sector. Our employers include Mash Direct and Willowbrook Foods, which have about 60% and 40% European labour, respectively. There is a very clear need for a system that works. I can say without fear of contradiction that Strangford is not only a beautiful constituency, but one that provides a lot of cereals, vegetables, beef, lamb and poultry. Agriculture is a very important part of our psyche in my constituency.
I hark back to the labour shortage in 2008, during which horticulture businesses lost an average of £140,000, as crops were left unpicked in the fields and retailers were left to try to fill their shelves with imported produce. There is no way we can go back to those hard, problematic times, which I know the Minister will have been aware of. The industry contributes some £3 billion to the UK economy and employs about 37,000 people on a permanent basis. The loss of workers and of the ability to work the land would have a massive effect on the local economy—I can vouch for that, as can other hon. Members present—as well as the UK-wide economy. The time is past due to stabilise the industry.
There is no question of Brexit not taking place. There are people who continuously throw up obstacles, negativity and problems, but let us look at it positively. The right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) outlined clearly the positivity that we need. Within this debate, we all have some thoughts to put to the Minister, and I know he will respond to them very positively. It is imperative that we take steps now to ensure that the worker scheme is open to all—Europeans and non-Europeans alike—who have a skill that they wish to use to fill a space. We have such gaps, undoubtedly; the figures indicate that.
I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, which is the sister union of the National Farmers Union, and as a landowner. The NFU and the UFU do a marvellous job on behalf of all farmers, but they also have some very good insurance premiums, which is one reason for our membership over the years. The NFU’s 2015 end-of-season labour survey has shown that, for the first time since the seasonal agricultural workers scheme closed, growers are starting to struggle to source an adequate supply of seasonal workers to meet their needs. Some 29% of respondents stated that they experienced problems in 2015, while 66% predicted that the situation will worsen by 2018. That is the crux of the problem: 2018 is six months away, so this is no longer a long-term outlook, but an impending crisis that demands action as a matter of urgency.
I have every faith that the Government—particularly the Minister, whom I know personally from our involvement with fishing and other farming issues—will respond with the message we need to hear. I ask him to give us, either in his reply or, if he cannot get to it today, in a letter to interested Members, an outline of how the shortfall can be met. I also underline the need to address the issue that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) raised about fishermen, although I know that it is not the subject of this debate.
Since the referendum, labour providers have reported a marked drop-off in interest from EU workers in seasonal work. That was demonstrated by the results of the NFU labour providers survey, in which 47% of labour providers said they were unable to meet the demands of the sectors they were supplying.
I am conscious of time, so I will conclude. The NFU says that the industry currently uses about 80,000 seasonal workers. That figure is expected to rise to 95,000 by 2021. Brexit will bring opportunities, and we need seasonal workers for that. In an industry that is worth some £108 billion to the nation’s economy, there is a need for more opportunities and stability for those who wish to help where help is greatly needed.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to support my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) in bringing up this topic and ensuring it stays on the agenda. This is very much a concern for farmers in my constituency, day after day, and right now, because it is peak fruit-picking season, particularly for strawberries and berries, as other Members have said.
It is good to see such a turnout on a Thursday afternoon. I am hopeful that all eligible Members here will come and join the APPG for fruit and vegetable farmers when it is reconstituted shortly, so that we have a Back-Bench voice for fruit and veg farmers. All of us are here because we have farmers in our constituencies who badly need seasonal workers. There are at least 5,000 seasonal workers, and possibly up to 10,000, in my constituency, which is a significant share of the UK’s annual requirement of 80,000 seasonal workers. One farm alone employs nearly 1,000 seasonal workers.
On the other hand, unemployment is very low in my area, with only about 700 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. There is no way that local labour can plug that gap, so we need workers from outside the area to help pick the fruit. I hear consistently from farmers in my constituency that it is becoming an increasing challenge to recruit and retain the workers they need on their farms.
One issue is the dropping return rate. Usually, a significant proportion—it is sometimes 80% to 90%—of workers return every year. The important thing is that they are experienced workers, so they are extremely valuable and productive. They are often paid well above the minimum wage. However, the return rate of experienced workers is dropping, and some workers leave early. We now have a wonderful extended season, thanks to the polytunnels to which the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) referred. We need workers to stay for as much of the season as possible, but they are tending to leave early.
The falling pound is clearly a factor in the shortfall. We also know that those workers are skilled, experienced and in demand across Europe—they have choices as to where they work, and some are not choosing to come to us. Another factor is uncertainty about the opportunities they will have to come here in future thanks to Brexit. Some are genuinely uncertain about how welcome they are. Although the Government have tried to put out positive messages about how we welcome people from other countries coming to work here in the UK, there is an increased level of hate crime against immigrant workers, so there is still a sense of them not being welcome. It is vital that that is addressed because it is a factor.
There are things that fruit farmers can do and are doing to address the challenges. Some farmers have improved the accommodation they offer to workers, which is a very good reaction to the challenge. There are also some helpful factors now that mean most of the fruit is being picked. One is the willingness of workers to do overtime, and the other is the unusual late frost we had, which means other jobs on the farm do not have to be done. Unfortunately, some fruit—for example, plums, in my constituency—suffered in the frost and does not need to be picked, so workers can be used for other crops.
At the moment, at least in my constituency, fruit is being picked, but there is real concern that there could be a problem, not only next year and the year after but even as soon as the apple harvest, with ensuring that fruit comes in from the fields. If that happens, prices will rise. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire referred to the possibility of a 50% increase in prices. That would mean that a punnet of strawberries that currently costs £2 would go up to £3. That is a material price rise, and I am worried that if it is passed on to the consumer, British consumers might be put off buying British fruit. We need British consumers to buy good British products.
Will the Minister look closely at this situation sooner rather than later and work with his Home Office colleagues—particularly the Immigration Minister? It is vital that something is done sooner rather than later. We must ensure that there is some way for experienced EU farm workers to come to the UK to help after Brexit. It is vital that there is clarity, that transitional arrangements are put in place as required, and that some kind of seasonal agricultural workers scheme that allows us to recruit both beyond the EU and within it is introduced sooner rather than later, so that we can keep having great British fruit for the Great British public.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Two Members are standing and I need to begin the winding-up speeches in about five minutes. If you are both extremely brief, you will both get in. I call Bill Wiggin.
I will be very brief, Mr Gapes. I agree with everything I have heard from my hon. Friends on the Government Benches. More than 20,000 fruit pickers come into my constituency alone every year, and the people who employ them constantly make this plea: if there is a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, the people in it must stay working on the farms that work hard to apply for them to come. There must be some degree of stickiness to stop those people disappearing into the local economy and doing other things. The administration of such a visa will be expensive. The whole purpose of all this is to ensure that businesses are competitive, so it is critical that we keep the costs of any scheme down and ensure that the people who apply come and work for the people who go to the trouble of hiring them.
I, too, shall be brief. I would like to emphasise the science element of agriculture. I am pleased to represent East Malling Research, which, as we all know, produced the Malling root stock from which most apples are grown—probably even some in Perthshire. That investment in British agriculture, which has been shared with the world, is essential. When we talk about seasonal agricultural workers, we need to think wider than simply soft fruits. But we are of course in Wimbledon season. Hugh Lowe Farms, which I am proud to represent, produces all the strawberries for Wimbledon and, I am sure, similar competitions around the United Kingdom. Strawberries may be drawn from Perthshire, but the pinnacle of the British summer is drawn from Kent.
Most seasonal agricultural workers are highly skilled. In Kent, many are paid well over the national living wage. We are not talking about a low-wage economy; this is hard work that is properly rewarded. However, we are already seeing some problems. One of the people I have the privilege of representing, Mrs Vivienne Tanna of Orchard Lodge farm, wrote to me to point out the amount of pears and other fruit that she is finding it hard to pick, for exactly the reasons that many Members highlighted.
I finish with a simple question to the Minister, whom I am glad to see back in his place. When we last debated this matter, in October 2015, we acknowledged huge changes to such things as table-top picking, and he expressed confidence that farming would cope with whatever challenges it faced. I hope that he is as confident today, and I hope that he listens not just to Government Members but to all voices in the House to find innovative solutions and ideas that ensure that the premier fruit in the world, whether it is from Perthshire or from Kent, is picked and sold, because it really is one of the great exports of our country.
I am pleased to wind up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. It has been a good debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing it.
We know a seasonal agricultural workers scheme is important and necessary, and the feeling from all sides of the House is that it is a no-brainer. There is complete agreement across all regions and nations of the United Kingdom that it has to come into being. In many ways, this will probably be the first of many Brexit damage-reduction measures that we will debate in the next few years. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, there is not yet a crisis, but it is quite clear that acute pains are being felt, and that a seasonal agricultural workers scheme is essential.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) effortlessly ranged in his speech from soft fruit to soft power, and he was absolutely certain that his constituency produces the best berries in the United Kingdom. I am pretty sure it produces the best berries in Scotland, which probably makes them the best berries in all of Europe; let us not constrain ourselves to the white cliffs of Dover, let us look internationally. He made a very good point about the changing nature of the berry-farming industry, with the planting, maintaining and harvesting of the fruits all having changed, and with polytunnels enabling him to enjoy those fine raspberries and strawberries before Easter and well beyond Halloween. He is lucky to represent such a fine area.
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) echoed my hon. Friend’s point about prices rising by up to 50%. That will affect an awful lot of people. There are concerns among many of the large retailers, such as Sainsbury’s, that the average shopping basket will rise in price by about 7%, even excluding changes in currency. Soft fruits are healthy foods that people should be eating. People are asked to eat them for their health in Finland, as they seem to have the effect of reducing heart attacks and other such problems. For them to become more expensive is surely not to the benefit of our society as a whole, and is certainly not to the benefit of the farmers.
Keeping with the “north” theme, I obviously disagreed with the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) on his points about Scotland, because Scotland has voted twice to stay in the European Union, but I agreed with him on much else. He pointed out that we have certainly seen an improving economy in eastern Europe, which will be significant. Mechanisation will have to come along at some point; it is certainly happening in fishing industries. Anybody who has been to Iceland will have seen that what was once done on fishing boats by man is now done by machines. The population of Iceland working in fisheries was once 25% but is now 4.3%. Mechanisation is always the way ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman also touched on conditions for workers, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent. These are experienced and skilled workers who we must value. I expect that, under any scheme, those workers would have access to whichever of the four national health services they might need to access across the United Kingdom. He also very informatively touched on the recognised seasonal employer scheme in New Zealand. I googled it as he spoke, and found a good article on it. The news hot from New Zealand is that the scheme will be expanded to cover tourism and fisheries, which is very welcome news. I certainly hope that it will be considered for our fisheries industry, because we definitely need people in that industry. We cannot have the obstinacy we have had from the Home Office, which is terrified of stupid headlines in the Daily Mail about migrants, which has led to fishing boats being tied and not catching fish—affecting processing jobs on land in my constituency.
The New Zealanders are very much aware that the scheme is a win-win situation. They take workers mainly from Pacific countries and they fully realise that much of the money that those workers earn will go back to their home countries, which will help people to develop and advance there. New Zealand also wants those workers to come back, because they have become experienced workers over time, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent also mentioned.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also mentioned that Northern Ireland shared Scotland’s and England’s view on this. It is vital that that is recognised. Keeping with the “north” theme as ever, the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) gave a good speech on the amount of workers that come into his constituency, which again shows just how important and big an issue this is. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent touched on an important point about the welcome that people get when they come here. They are experienced workers. We should abhor the very idea of hate crime against them, and fight against it happening or being encouraged—even derogatory talk about migrants should be stopped. In Scotland, happily, we have seen a fall in hate crime since the Brexit referendum of June last year.
The UK Government, by pursuing a narrow-minded approach, are making decisions on migration that are detrimental to Scotland. I hope that in this first Brexit damage-reduction measure we will see something useful and helpful. I do not see why the UK, in contrast to countries such as Switzerland, has to have a centralised policy—in Scotland, we have very different demographics from the rest of the UK.
About 14,000 non-UK seasonal workers come back and forth to Scotland, most of them employed in the soft fruit and vegetable sectors in the summer and autumn. That underpins our £14 billion food and drink industry, which is one of the fastest growing and most successful sectors in Scotland. We know what we need to do for Scotland; it is terrible—frustrating—for us to have to inform and often educate a UK Minister that something beneficial to Scotland might also be beneficial to the Exchequer, with the taxes and revenues of increased economic activity.
One of the benefits that I had not seen or thought of much before was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), which is the cultural benefits naturally and normally brought about by such exchanges of people. When we talk about things like this, we sometimes think in economic tramlines, instead of about the human beings involved and the welcome cultural exchanges.
To round up, the need for a scheme is absolutely pressing. The Minister must act and the Home Office must be welcoming of such a scheme—we can have no obstruction from them. We have to widen it out to other sectors such as tourism and, certainly, fisheries. It is something that makes total sense and has been a no-brainer as far as this debate is concerned. All participants have been supportive of it, and I look forward to seeing such a scheme in the near future.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
I congratulate the Select Committee. It is good to know that it was in safe hands. Some of us left some time ago, but it is still turning out good reports.
I welcome the Minister to his place. My summing up could be very short, because if he intimates that he has accepted all the submissions about how we need a new SAWS by nodding at me, I will sit down and think the debate has been a great success. However, I do not want to steal his thunder and perhaps he wants to say that himself.
Whether the decision taken in 2013 was by the Minister, his predecessor or the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the reality is that we have to revisit it and we have to ensure that we get another SAWS. The original scheme was of course one of the achievements of the 1945 Labour Government—one that perhaps most people do not know about but was nevertheless important, because it tried to provide some stability in the agricultural industry and, more particularly, a strategy whereby we could recruit people when we needed them.
The report is a good one and, as I have said, I concur with it and with the points made by right hon. and hon. Members. I will add two caveats on where they might have made some additional points. First, among the reasons why people from this country do not necessarily go to pick fruit nowadays, I would add the housing situation. If someone lives in a council house or even rents privately, it is difficult to leave that property and go to a different part of the country, even if accommodation is provided there, given secure tenancy arrangements, the fact that we do not want empty properties even for a short time and the pressure on housing being what it is today.
My other point is about a misnomer: the scheme is not only for seasonal agricultural workers. For some industries, in particular the dairy industry, it is a year-round scheme. In my part of the world, we have a number of Polish workers who come for a period of years. It is not only about people who come for months; sometimes they come for longer. We need flexibility built into the scheme, whatever form it takes.
To give the Minister the maximum time to respond to this very good debate, I will ask a series of questions based on where I think we ought to be moving, and how we might be able to help the Government travel in that direction. The first and most obvious question is what research has been undertaken on the impact of Brexit, whether it will lead to a substantial reduction in the number of migrant workers and how that will play out for agriculture. In particular, I know that the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to review the issue. It would be good to know that DEFRA will have some input into determining the specific implications for agriculture, particularly horticulture.
My second question is about opportunity and where people might come from if not the EU. What research has been undertaken and what discussions had with other Governments to open up opportunities for people to come work here if they can no longer do so as a result of the Brexit changes? Thirdly, I am glad automation was mentioned; it appears in the Select Committee report. The difficulty is that it is a bit like—dare I say it—a cure for bovine TB; it is always 10 years away, as some of us will know. What research has been done on how automation might play a part? One body that is undervalued and ignored in many respects is Lantra, which has responsibility for providing skills training for those on the land. What discussions have the Government had with Lantra to bring forward skills training so that we might have a larger resident population interested in taking on such roles?
The main tenor of this debate has been that we need to go back to where we were, although maybe not to exactly the same places. It is useful for the Minister to at least acknowledge that things may have been misjudged back in 2013, but we have learned a lesson and things must be dealt with. Although one does not use the word “crisis”, the possibility of leaving fruit on the ground sounds as near a crisis to me as it is possible to get. To be fair to him, he has form on this matter. He intimated in an interview in Farmers Weekly:
“Longer term, we will be looking at issues such as work permits and how we can ensure we have the labour we need—while also having an approach that is very much around controlled migration.”
What will that work permit scheme be? Maybe it is being considered in outline at present, but we certainly need some more detail. When is it likely to be introduced? Could it be introduced before Brexit or shortly after? We need to know how people will be able to come to work on the land.
This is an important industry. The whole Brexit debate will centre on aspects of agriculture, partly because £3 billion is a huge sum relative to other industries in terms of what will happen when we leave the EU. It would be good to know, therefore, what we can expect in terms of moneys. I accept that we are looking ahead, but some of the moneys would have to go towards appropriate provision of labour, not just in terms of SAWS but to get people to go on the land, because, as everyone would agree, we want a vibrant agricultural industry in this country. We are proud of it, and we need food security, but we must also recognise that there will be a huge economic burden if we do not produce more of our own food. In a previous incarnation, some of us spent a lot of time trying to argue that that was both necessary and helpful for the British economy. It would be good to know how this issue fits into the wider Brexit strategy, given that there is already a problem, and the problem will get worse before it gets better. If we do not grasp the nettle now, the situation could spiral out of control.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), back to this place and back to this wonderful brief, DEFRA, where we have so many complex issues to deal with.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate to discuss the important work that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has done on migrant labour as it applies to agriculture. It published its report in April, getting it out just before the general election, and it was a pleasure to give evidence to its inquiry earlier this year, alongside the Home Office Minister who is now the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill).
I completely recognise that the Committee has received a number of strong representations from the farming industry. I also understand that, as a number of hon. Members have said, part of the backdrop to the debate is a general apprehension in the farming industry about what might happen once we have left the European Union and what arrangements might be put in place to replace the free movement of labour that it currently enjoys.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton will be aware that the Home Office leads on this issue. He will also be aware that I have personal experience in this industry and understand the challenge well. The challenge has been set out by a number of hon. Members, particularly those with fruit producers in their constituencies, including my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). All those constituencies rely heavily on migrant labour.
I ran a soft fruit enterprise for the best part of 10 years. We used to employ 250 staff. Our farm in Cornwall was nicknamed locally “the United Nations”, because we had people from many different countries. We had staff from EU countries, but also some staff from Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, who were here on the then holiday work visa scheme. I know what it is like, and I know what it is like to have to close the gate on a field of strawberries that cannot be harvested because there are not enough staff.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton pointed out, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has been around since 1945. It was brought in after the war to ensure that we could provide our farms with the workers that they needed. However, as the EU expanded, the need for the scheme decreased. From 1990, it was subject to quotas, and in 1990 the quota was set at 5,500 places. It went up to about 25,000 by 2003, was reduced again in 2005 after the big accession of a number of new member states whose people were able to come here and work, and was put back up to 21,250 in 2008.
In 2005, the Home Office announced its intention to phase out, over time, existing quota-based low-skilled migration schemes, including SAWS, because labour needs at low skill levels were deemed to be capable of being met from an expanded EU labour market. From 2008 to 2013, SAWS was open only to nationals of Bulgaria and Romania, while transitional restrictions on their labour market access remained in place. The decision to end SAWS was informed by advice from the Migration Advisory Committee, which considered there to be no immediate shortfall in the supply of seasonal labour, although at the point at which it gave that advice, it conceded that in the medium to long term, which it identified as being possibly sometime after 2017, shortages could arise and we should therefore keep matters under review, which we have.
DEFRA established the SAWS transition working group. That met as recently as 6 March this year and discussed some of these issues of anecdotal reports that things are getting harder. Its conclusion in the March meeting, which I will come on to in more detail, was that this was a challenging situation but not a crisis.
My hon. Friend cast some doubt on the figures used by the former Home Office Minister and suggested they were out of date. That is unfair because the figures are clear and correct. The Office for National Statistics figures for January to March 2017 show that the number of EU nationals working in the UK was up by 171,000 to a total of 2.32 million. We also know that around 350,000 EU nationals work in the food chain.
The figures are right, but I agree and concede that they are migration figures. We are talking about something slightly different—seasonal migration, which does not show up in those figures. Seasonal migration is for those who come here for short periods—typically six months —and then return home for part of the year. Estimates of the number of people who come here as seasonal migrant workers and return home every year range from 67,000 to 80,000.
When the SAWS transition group met on 6 March, it discussed the reason for this anecdotal reporting of a tightening in that labour market, and a number of possible reasons were advanced. First, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, the weakening of the pound against the euro means that it is less attractive to come here and work, particularly if people are sending money back home. Secondly, it was pointed out that there have been changes to child benefit entitlement in Poland, which means fewer people from Poland are coming to the UK. Thirdly, Bulgaria has been taking steps to encourage its workforce to stay and work there, which is also thought to be a factor. A number of factors may have had an impact on seasonal migrant workers, even though we know that net migration from the EU has continued to rise.
A number of hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, asked what research we are doing. The EFRA Committee’s report asked us to review things before the end of the year. I have asked officials to continue to monitor the situation closely, given the reports we are getting. In fact, they have a meeting tomorrow with some of the employment providers and the NFU. The purpose of the meeting is to establish what data we need to come back from the industry and under what timescale they are able to provide it. Having established that, we have at the earliest opportunity to convene another formal meeting of the SAWS transition group to review the data. It is very important that we are able to review the data across the whole of 2017.
I thank the Minister very much for that thoughtful and good response. We can collect all these data, but if we see a tightening in the labour market, are we able to put a SAWS arrangement in place for next year? This is the bit I worry about. The Government say they can act fast, but some of the previous fast actions have taken longer than six months—dare I say?—and I am a little concerned. I hope we can be swift of foot. I am not making a party political point, just a point for the Government.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Home Office leads on this area. He will also be aware that our colleague, the then Immigration Minister, said that he believed it could stand up a SAWS scheme within five to six months. I understand that it would require a statutory instrument, because it is not the case that the SAWS scheme is dormant and reduced to zero. In secondary legislation, the SAWS scheme was discontinued when we passed the legislation allowing the accession and ending of the transitional arrangements for Romania and Bulgaria. I believe it needs secondary legislation, and it would be a matter for the Home Office. My hon. Friend’s Committee heard what the Home Office Minister had to say on that.
There is a difference across the year and between sectors. A number of hon. Members have used the term “peak strawberry”. We know that the third quarter—that is, from July to September—is always the period when demand for seasonal labour is highest and the most important quarter to watch. In other parts of the year the pressure is lower, which can mean that different sectors are affected differently. It means, for instance, that the soft fruit sector reports the greatest problems.
Earlier today I spoke to a farmer I know, a daffodil grower in Cornwall, who employs more than 1,200 seasonal staff, predominantly from Romania and Bulgaria. They reported to me that they did not have any problems at all and actually want to increase the number of seasonal staff. They are looking at Bulgaria, a very large country, and working with jobcentres there. They are not reporting any difficulty in getting the staff they need. Of course, this is the daffodil industry during the first quarter, when competition for labour tends to be low, so I appreciate that it is different for some others. I also mentioned exchange rates, and they pointed out that it is not a big issue for them because although the exchange rate is down, it is roughly back to the levels it was in 2010-11. Exchange rates do go up and down and businesses have to plan for that.
I want to talk a bit about the context of the EU, which the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) raised. Obviously, while we are in the EU, nothing changes. We still have free movement. I understand, however, that people want clarity about what will happen after we leave, and that is part of the backdrop, which the Government understand. While we want to have controlled migration, we are very clear that we are not pulling up the drawbridge. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), asked about research. In addition to the work being done by the SAWS transition group convened by DEFRA, the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to look at the UK labour market and our reliance on EU migrant labour across sectors. That will include looking at the SAWS.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry but I am running out time and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton time to respond.
Finally, I want to touch on some of the points made in the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) raised the New Zealand and Australian schemes. I will indeed read Professor Alan Winters’s report, which he highlighted. We have been told by Concordia, one of the labour providers, that it has managed to improve recruitment rates by offering travel and transport to help people to get here.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has a lot of agriculture in his constituency and I take his points on board. The Northern Ireland poultry sector is very large. It is less about seasonal labour there, and more often about permanent labour. I hope the Prime Minister’s words about settled status will therefore give him reassurance.
My hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) talked about a number of growers in their constituencies that I know and remember from my time in the industry. Coming back to the point raised, it is the case that there is an opportunity in the soft fruit sector. It has managed to spread the season with polytunnels to stagger the crop so that there are fewer peaks. A lot of very good work has been done on plant breeding so that they can increase the average size of the fruit, reducing their picking costs. A new variety called Centenary, which is just on market, is much more consistent in the size of the fruit. As someone who ran a soft fruit operation, I know that the overall size of the fruit is the key determinant of the cost of picking.
In conclusion, we have had a very interesting debate. These are very important issues. I reassure the House that our SAWS transition group is looking closely at all of them, and that the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to do a major piece of work in this area.
I thank the Minister very much for summing up, and thank the shadow Minister. I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil).
I again welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). It is good to see him here. He made some interesting points regarding how the flexibility of labour in this country has something to do with some of the fixed-term tenancies in housing. That is interesting to put into the mix, because we need more home-grown labour.
I thank the Minister very much for his summing up. He is a man who actually knows the industry and what is happening. He knows that, with perishable vegetables and fruits, we need that labour and we need it now. What I will say to him, as would be expected, is that the Select Committee has done this report and realises that the labour situation is just about okay at the moment, but will follow what the Government are doing. Naturally, we will call the Government to account to ensure that there is a scheme in place when we need it. Otherwise, those fruits and vegetables will go to waste. We want more great fruit and vegetables. Colleagues from across the country decided that their counties and countries were the best for producing fruit, but we can absolutely agree that British fruit and vegetables are great; that we want to grow more of them; that we very much want the labour, from either home or abroad, to pick it; and that we have to ensure the labour is available.
I thank the Minister, the shadow Ministers and all Members for contributing, and you, Mr Gapes, for chairing.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).