Act now to protect our growers – before British farming reaches crisis point
British growers cannot wait until we've left the EU. The government must introduce a new Seasonal Agricultural Permit Scheme soon – or British fruit could be left to rot on the branch
There’s nothing like a British strawberry and, as summer approaches, the fields in my constituency will be full of glorious, ripening fruit.
As well as growing healthy food, fruit and vegetable, famers are vital to the rural economy. They employ thousands of people, and the food and drink industry as a whole is worth £108bn to the economy.
Fruit-growing is a great British success story. The market has grown rapidly over the last five years as people are choosing healthier diets and berries have been recognised as a superfood. But with rising labour costs and supermarkets determined to keep prices stable, profits are being squeezed. Half of fruit farms have a margin of 2% or less.
From speaking to local farmers, and as chair of the APPG for Fruit and Vegetable Farming, I know opinions were split over Brexit. However, all growers are worried about access to labour. The horticulture industry needs thousands of seasonal workers every year to pick and pack their produce.
The British Growers Association estimates that the horticulture industry employed 80,000 seasonal workers last year. They forecast this will increase to 95,000 by 2019. Currently, the vast majority come from EU countries.
Farmers in my constituency have tried to recruit locally, but it hasn’t worked – not least because high employment rates mean there aren’t enough people looking for work, let alone with the skills required. In my constituency, farmers employ around 10,000 seasonal workers, but fewer than 800 people are on JSA.
The days of students picking fruit as a holiday job are gone. Supermarkets demand quality, consistency and picking at a rate that requires workers who are experienced and physically fit. EU countries have provided a steady stream of skilled workers, but growers tell me they are now struggling to recruit.
The lower value of the pound means wages are worth less to workers from abroad than before, and some EU migrants are feeling less welcome following the referendum. Fruit pickers are skilled workers, in demand across the EU, so some farmers are paying more than the national living wage to compete.
There are real fears that British fruit could go unpicked, left to rot on the branch, because of a shortage of labour. Some British fruit farmers could go out of business, and the cost of fruit that does reach the shops could go up. In a sector where we are arguably the best in the world, and at a time when we want to improve our balance of trade, we face British produce being replaced by imports.
The referendum result was decisive. Rightly, the government plans to negotiate a deal which controls free movement. However, this does create a challenge for an industry which relies on seasonal migrant labour. This is why we need a Seasonal Agricultural Permit Scheme [SAPS].
I recently invited Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, to meet farmers in my constituency. They made the case strongly for such a scheme to be introduced as soon as possible. They can’t afford to wait until we leave the EU.
We used to have a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme [SAWS] until it was abolished in 2013. Similar schemes exist in other OECD countries including New Zealand, Canada, the US and Australia. SAWS had entry and exit checks which meant that over 98% of those who came to work in the UK returned home afterwards, so did not count towards immigration figures.
A new SAPS scheme could include all the positives of the old scheme: Home Office oversight, checks on arrival and departure, restrictions on the length of placement and independently accredited standards. And permits should be extended to agricultural workers from beyond the EU.
Farmers need to know they will have access to the workers they need: SAPS would provide that security – it should be introduced sooner rather than later.
Helen Whately is Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent and chair of the Fruit and Vegetable Farming APPG
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