Paice hears sector concerns over SAWS axing and payments fiasco at Fruit Focus

Farming minister Jim Paice last week sought to allay industry concerns over the end of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), relationships with supermarkets and funding of producer organisations.

NFU horticulture board vice-chairman Anthony Snell told the minister at the Fruit Focus event: "We shouldn't even be having a debate on SAWS - it's a tried-and-tested scheme. Practically every country in the world uses seasonal migrant labour."

Paice said: "We want some sort of continuity. The Home Office will be reluctant to have a successor scheme and we have to have clear evidence that there is a case for one, which we hope the NFU will help us to build."

But he added: "If you are attractive employers, Romanian and Bulgarian workers will still come to you after 2013, as Polish and Baltic workers do now. "The Home Office will want to know: 'If they come under SAWS, why not under their own motivation?'"

NFU chief horticultural adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons replied: "We can put a compelling case forward on this. We don't want the Government to test its theory by dropping the scheme."

NFU president Peter Kendall added: "We would not harvest a fraction of the fruit and vegetables we do without SAWS."

On relationships with the supermarkets, Kendall said: "There are parallels with dairy. The media now understand how the supermarkets abuse their power. They need to meet the requirements of the Code of Practice, and having a policeman will raise it a notch - although it's not a silver bullet."

Paice said of supermarkets: "They do a fantastic job overall, but we want to see consistency in buying practices."

Campbell-Gibbons said that when preparing its Catalyst for Change report (HW, 20 July), the NFU found it "very difficult to find genuine commitments by supermarkets to horticulture". She added: "They have made a more meaningful offer on dairy than in other sectors."

Rural payments

At last week's Fruit Focus event, British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins told farming minister Jim Paice: "The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is being hard on producer organisations, and capital - the lifeblood for growers - is being held back."

Paice replied: "I put my hands up - the RPA made a fist of it. The commission said we were giving money to producer organisations that weren't compliant - indeed, some weren't and were just in it for the money. But we are committed to them and are trying to get as many reinstated as possible."

NFU chairman Peter Kendall added: "We are still hearing of pedantic interpretation of the rules on producer organisations. Fortunately, (recently-appointed RPA chief executive) Mark Grimshaw is kicking backsides, and I see real progress."

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