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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:44 pm ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 12:44, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I cannot claim to know anything about horticulture. I do know that it is important economically and because it helps to feed us, and for the sheer pleasure it gives. I know that you cannot pluck a cucumber off a tree already shrink-wrapped, but that is about the extent of it. It is not my subject, except that it is everybody’s subject, but I am a member of our House’s committee currently reviewing the Modern Slavery Act, so I have a particular interest in the section in the report on seasonal workers.

Exploitation is a continuum; it does not have to be modern slavery or trafficking to be a problem. My noble friend Lord Redesdale told me that Members were shocked at an early stage by the conditions to which some workers are subjected; the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to this. More recently we discussed recruitment practices, which my noble friend described as the biggest issue, since agencies recruiting overseas workers are outside the jurisdiction. I have not picked up whether the National Crime Agency is able to pursue organised criminality in the sector. I do not disagree with his identification of these two areas of concern, but I would like to take a step back.

Why are there problems in this part of the sector? In my view, it is in part because the Government look at so much through an immigration lens—or perhaps I should say, not immigration. The high-level policy is that we should grow our own skills and use the domestic workforce, but seasonal agriculture work is not a career path. As the report points out, local workers are not available for work that is not available year-round. Of course, the seasonal worker route is treated separately from shortage occupations by the Home Office.

The committee thoughtfully refers to more than low wages. I had not realised some of the aspects of tax and national insurance. I do not know whether to describe as defensive or unimaginative the Government’s response, for instance, to the recommendation on auto-enrolment: “Saving for retirement”, they say,

“is a crucial right … exemptions… would undermine the success of workplace pensions.”

I doubt whether that is a priority for many in this group. HMRC has responsibilities with regard to compliance with minimum wage requirements, so it should understand some of the realities. Simplified arrangements for claiming overpaid tax from overseas or, better, waiving tax deductions until the tax-free limit is reached, seem obvious and right.

There is an ad-hoc response to shortages of labour in different sectors, which has led to a clunky visa regime. Rolling out a scheme before reviewing the pilot is unhelpful. One aspect of workers needing visas is vulnerability to exploitation and poor working conditions. Workers who do not understand the system are vulnerable to exploitation by the person who holds the power in the relationship. Starkly, that is through illegal recruitment fees, loans taken to pay them from loan sharks and organised crime gangs, and resulting debt bondage. The report’s paragraph about the scams offering non-existent jobs is powerful.

The Government’s response that the GLAA has published guidance for employers recruiting overseas, coupled with the explanation that it has no relevant powers, and of course the cuts to its budget and those of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, are unhelpful. Employers want certainty; the only certainty seems to be that it is known that budgets to deal with modern slavery and human trafficking and exploitation are to be cut year on year.

Can the Minister be clear, and if necessary write to me, about what powers the GLAA has to inspect workplaces at which workers are based? In other words, what can it do, systematically and by way of spot checks, to address abuses? Similarly, can he provide a list of memoranda of understanding between the GLAA and Governments of the countries of origin of workers? What binding agreements are there in respect of fair recruitment? Time defeats me, as it has defeated all of us, but I congratulate my noble friend and the committee on its report.