English Horticultural Sector (Horticultural Sector Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:28 pm ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 12:28, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that rousing speech, and to compliment the committee on its report, as others have widely and rightly done. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his clear introduction, and join the almost universal tributes to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, for her long-term contribution to horticulture. I declare that I have an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with the Horticultural Trades Association.

I start, as pretty well every noble Lord has, by reflecting on the extreme disappointment there has been in the Government’s response to the committee’s report. The HTA, the National Farmers’ Union and the Worker Interest Group are severely disappointed by the Government’s failure to properly engage with this report, in particular their failure to acknowledge the need for a horticultural strategy. The Worker Interest Group is a coalition of nine not-for-profit groups representing and engaging with seasonal horticultural workers. It has written to Defra, pointing out many of the failures relevant to it in the Government’s response to the committee’s report. They represent a failure of basic functions and responsibilities of government, and for any noble Lord who is interested, I would be happy to share a copy.

I will take just one example from that. The committee’s recommendation 59 says:

“The Government must publish its review of the seasonal worker route, as promised in response to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s December 2022 report.”

I note that the chief inspector said in that report that

“the Home Office should significantly raise its game”.

One might say that in regard to a lot of things, but we are talking at the moment about the seasonal worker scheme. The Government’s response is that they will “in due course” publish a review of the scheme’s operation from 2020 to 2022. The only published full review of the scheme is of the 2019 pilot, which involved 2,500 visas. We now have 55,000 visas. It is entirely different in scale and nature.

Before I get back to that, I want first to address the overall failure of the Government’s response. It reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of the horticultural sector and the need for it to expand. We have just come out of a debate on housing and the environment. If the sterile, bleak housing estates that we are now building are to be enhanced and public health is to be improved, we need a much expanded, upskilled and valued environmental horticulture sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, has powerfully covered the point about food. We need about 20 times more fruit and vegetables to be grown in the UK than we have now to be self-reliant and for a healthy diet.

I want briefly to look at the overall situation. There is a failure of labour policy, which I started with, but underlying that there is also a failure of policy to control and ensure a fair market for growers against the power of the big supermarkets and food manufacturers. They have been allowed and, indeed, encouraged by government policies over decades to entirely dominate our food system.

Behind that is a system of growing what vegetables and fruit we do grow here in outdoor factories, where there is huge pressure on the imported workers who come here for six months to pick rapidly and accurately. The worker advocates tell me that workers are subjected to significant bullying and abuse in the fields. If they are not seen to be picking fast enough and accurately enough, after a few hours they are sent back to their accommodation, which is likely to be a caravan. This might be housing six people, often speaking different languages. They go back every night, crying, to a caravan that is likely to be cold and mouldy. They see doors and accommodation without locks. They are not supposed to be charged for energy supplies, but they are. When you see your punnet of strawberries in the supermarket, it is worth thinking about what is potentially behind it. About 70% of the workers who come here take out debt to do so. Only 30% of them are confident that they will be able to pay that back.

For further information on this, I have to cross-reference the FLEX report, Bearing Fruit: Making Recruitment Fairer for Migrant Workers, which is out this month. It is worth saying that it does not have to be like this. Countries such as the US and Canada have far better models. They have bilateral arrangements with sending countries—workers come from a handful of countries. There are so many things to say, but I will finish on a reference to this FLEX report. Of the workers FLEX spoke to, 30% were from Kazakhstan, 18% from Kyrgyzstan, 10% from Indonesia and 18% from Uzbekistan, with others from Tajikistan and Moldova. We are bringing people to this country from around the world. They are going back to the rest of the world with a very negative impression of the UK and we are failing to provide ourselves with the horticultural sector that we need.