Neil leads debate on Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

Neil lead a Parliamentary debate, calling for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. You can read Neil's speech below, or watch it at this link. 

Neil: 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%.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): 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.

Neil: 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 have 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.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leics): 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.

Neil: 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.

Angus MacNeil (SNP - Western Isles): 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.

Neil: 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 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 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.

Peter Wishart: 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?

Neil:  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 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.

Helen Whately (Faversham): 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?

Neil:  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.