Mounting frustration over horticultural labour crisis response

General election threatens impact of committee's report supporting call for action.

Parliament: EFRA Committee does not share the Government’s confidence that the sector does not have a problem - image: HW
Parliament: EFRA Committee does not share the Government’s confidence that the sector does not have a problem - image: HW

Growers have been left frustrated that the impact of a parliamentary report supporting their view on the sector's labour needs over that of ministers could be diluted due to the snap general election called for 8 June.

The House of Commons Environment, Farming & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee's report, Feeding the nation: labour constraints, concludes: "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."

But its early publication on 25 April, a week after the prime minister's announcement of the general election, "has meant that we have not been able to prepare a detailed report on all of the issues raised", according to the report.

NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper tells Horticulture Week: "We are delighted that they took our side. It's frustrating that we are now into the election campaign so there is no one there in Government to listen. We'll just have to wait. We do all this work then the cards will get shuffled again. There will be new ministers and a new EFRA Committee after the election and, of course, we've no idea who that will be. We'll have to do the same job over again, so that the key people understand what we need."

Capper, who in her time on the board has regularly sought the ear of Government over labour supply and other issues of concern to growers, admits: "The whole political process over the last three years has been very frustrating."

With Brexit negotiations soon to be underway, she adds: "Theresa May is leading it but there are a series of people behind her who need to understand where we're coming from. We need to be in front of them."

On labour supply this year, Capper says: "It's still too early to say how this season will go, but growers say they are already concerned about retention levels, about the quality of people coming and so the training costs."

The EFRA report points out that the "wide variety of witnesses representing various agricultural and horticultural employers" who had given evidence to the committee earlier this year "were unanimous in reporting that their businesses had long struggled to find sufficient labour to meet their needs, either from UK or overseas sources", and that they "considered that these problems had worsened since June 2016 following the UK's decision to leave the EU".

It notes that "no accurate figures exist of exactly how many seasonal workers are migrants to the UK", although "a best guess estimate is that there are around 75,000 temporary migrant workers employed in UK agriculture and horticulture".

The NFU, in its submission, said the sector currently needs 80,000 seasonal workers, rising to 95,000 by 2021. "As a result, even before the UK's vote to leave the EU, the sector was still keen for the Government to take action to increase the supply of seasonal workers," it said.

But it added: "The sector's shortfall in temporary labour has been exacerbated by recent events and foreign labour is proving harder to source. Many reasons were posited for this, including changes in the value of sterling, increased living standards in Eastern Europe, uncertainty created by Brexit, the desirability of work in other growth sectors and a feeling among foreign workers of 'not being welcome'."

Having put these concerns to Defra farming minister George Eustice and Home Office minister Robert Goodwill, both of them "suggested that the issues raised with us had been exaggerated ... and quoted statistics which questioned whether there was any shortage of labour or any difficulties in recruiting staff from the EU2 countries (Romania and Bulgaria)". Further, both ministers "stressed that in the short term the sector should face no additional difficulties while the UK remained in the EU".

Supplementary evidence that the committee sought from previous witnesses on these points "was generally critical of the minsters' statements", according to the report. "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."

Son of SAWS

On the issue of a revived Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), growers feel that "such a scheme would have been necessary even without the UK's decision to leave the EU but that decision had made the need for such a scheme even greater", the committee notes. Yet despite assurances from ministers: "We remained concerned that the Government could not act quickly enough to establish a new scheme and new sources of labour if labour shortages became acute.

"It is vital that the labour supply 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."

Country Land & Business Association deputy president Tim Breitmeyer says: "The problem is that the Government is not acting fast enough to deal with this immediate issue. Every week that goes by without a commitment to introduce a suitable scheme creates risk for businesses across the rural economy. This should be the first priority of ministers when they get back in June."

The consequences of Brexit on labour mobility are likely to be felt most keenly on the UK's only land border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, an area with both a substantial agri-food sector and high dependency on migrant labour.

An analysis by Ulster University commissioned by councils on both sides of the border raised potential risks to trade and movement of goods and services, particularly in food and farming. But lead researcher Eoin Magennis says a "surprising finding" was the number of workers from elsewhere in Europe employed in the area. "That is an area of exposure, depending on how the issue of freedom of movement plays out," he says.

Meanwhile, former Tory chancellor of the exchequer Lord Nigel Lawson has dismissed the need for migrant labour in food and farming post-Brexit. Speaking at a debate, he said: "There will be some changes on the immigration front ... but it's people like the Romanian fruit pickers that we don't need. It is not the highly skilled people that the City wants, who will always be welcome."

But Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said Lawson has shown "incredible naivety" about the economic impact of Brexit, adding that his comments "fail to understand the need for high-skilled and low-skilled labour across the country, with sectors like healthcare, education, construction and farming dependent on immigrants who come to the UK, pay their taxes and work hard."

80,000 Seasonal workers needed by the sector

Agri-food Industry disruption

In a similar vein to the EFRA Committee, a report published last week by the House of Lords EU Committee has warned: "Unless arrangements are made to preserve access to labour from outside the UK, the agri-food industry will suffer major disruption." As the industry currently employs many seasonal and permanent EU workers, it notes: "A seasonal agricultural workers scheme alone, though a priority for our witnesses, will not be a sufficient measure for preserving access to labour."

It adds: "Many workers in the agricultural sector are often regarded as 'unskilled' but are in fact extremely skilled at sector-specific tasks such as crop handling and harvesting. We recommend that the Government recognise these skills when assessing labour needs and access to foreign labour after Brexit." Along with other parliamentary select committees, the EU Committee ceased to exist when Parliament was dissolved on 3 May.

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