EFRA committee report slams Government inaction on industry's labour needs

EFRA committee chairman Neil Parish MP has said Government statistics are inadequate for measuring agriculture and seasonal migrant workers requirements and that the Government must review the supply of and demand for seasonal labour by the end of 2017.

Minsister George Eustice and Robert Goodwill, as well as industry representatives such as the HTA's David Brown appeared before the EFRA committee during its investigation into labour issues.

After Brown warned of an impending recruitment crisis, Eustice would not say whether a new SAWS scheme would be introduced after Brexit, but he promised to avoid any "cliff edges" in labour supply. Goodwill from the Home Office said it would take five to six months to introduce a new scheme.

According to the report which follows the completion of the EFRA inquiry, there are around 75,000 temporary migrant workers employed in UK agriculture. The NFU says the sector will need to meet the demand for 95,000 seasonal workers by 2021.

Report author Neil Parish MP said: "The weight of evidence from a range of agricultural and horticultural businesses indicates that their sectors are facing considerable difficulties in recruiting and retaining labour. We do not share the confidence of the Government that the sector does not have a problem: on the contrary, evidence submitted to this inquiry suggests the current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply.

"We are concerned that the industry has such different experiences to those reported by the Government. It is apparent that the statistics used by the Government are unable to provide a proper indication of agriculture's labour needs. These statistics and their utility for measuring supply of, and demand for, seasonal labour must be reviewed by the end of 2017 to give the sector confidence in the adequacy of the official data on which employment and immigration policies will be based for the period after the UK leaves the EU."

The report adds: "We note the Government’s assertions that a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is unnecessary as long as the UK retains free movement of labour among the European Union. We further note the Home Office’s assertion that a new SAWS could be introduced very quickly—in five or six months—once the need for such a scheme had been identified.

"It is vital that the labour supply available to the agriculture and horticulture sectors does not suddenly dry up as a result of any uncertainty caused by the new immigration arrangements instituted following the UK’s exit from the EU. We note the promise made to us that this will not happen, and we are confident that our successor Committee will wish to scrutinise this area of Government activity closely throughout the next Parliament.

"Inquiring into the long-term labour needs of the agricultural sector raises many questions on the future shape and working practices of that sector, as well as on many strands of Government activity in the areas of education and rural policy. Our successor Committee will, we are sure, address these issues either through specific inquiries or as part of its wider work throughout the next Parliament."

The committee added that the calling of an early General Election has meant that it has not been able to prepare a detailed report on all of the issues raised. The Report instead provides brief comment on key issues identified. 

HTA policy advisor David Brown said: "It's good news this report has been published. I'd like to thank the committee for showing interest in the first place."

He said the post-election ministerial team will need to address what EFRA has raised: "Reading between the lines Neil Parish is saying there is a great disparity between the official figures compared to what the industry is telling you, therefore as a committee we want to know which are the right figures."

He said on SAWS, that the Government can bring in a new scheme in 6/7 months but need to convince the industry they can do it that quickly and that having accurate figures on how many overseas and seasonal workers is essential in that act: "What figures will you use and will they bring it in that quickly. We're saying 80,000-90,000."

NFU deputy president Minette Batters said: "An abrupt reduction in the number of EU workers able to work in the UK after we leave the EU would cause massive disruption to the entire food supply chain - a solution for the whole industry is needed to ensure the sector has access to the skills and labour it needs.  
"We are calling on Government to ensure that farmers and growers have access to sufficient numbers of permanent and seasonal workers post-Brexit, and for clarity on the new rules for EU nationals living and working in the UK well before free movement ends in March 2019." 

The inquiry and report followed employers in the agriculture and horticulture sector reporting difficulties with recruiting sufficient labour to harvest and process their produce and Brexit focussing attention on the dependence of the sectors on migrant workers, EFRA took oral evidence from four panels of witnesses to inquire into whether there was a shortage of labour in the agriculture and horticulture sectors, what the short and long-term causes of any shortages were, and what policies the Government should adopt in the short and medium-term to prevent any such future shortages.

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