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Opinion- Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge and member of the Efra select committee

Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge and member of the Efra select committee

Last week, MPs discussed the case for the introduction of a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Permit Scheme, in a debate characterised by a pragmatic approach to the needs of farmers across all sectors.

 

Horticulture figured prominently in speeches.

 

The need for about 80,000 seasonal workers in the sector was recognised, and mention was made of recent reductions in the number of EU nationals willing to work on our farms.

 

Without the input of foreign seasonal labour, the fear is UK horticultural businesses could suffer competitive disadvantage.

 

Not only that, reputational damage could occur if food supplies are disrupted, with a consequent loss of confidence on the part of the consumer in British-grown fruit, vegetables and plants.

 

The argument is therefore that from 2017 we need to pilot a new permit scheme for non-EU workers, in order to prepare ourselves for a successful transition to a post-Brexit world.

 

In other words, we need to factor into our planning for the future of agriculture the possibility that British farmers will no longer be able to enjoy barrier-free access to seasonal labour from EU countries.

 

This demand relates not just to horticulture, but to other sectors in agriculture.

 

Farmers need foreign workers; British workers, for a variety of reasons, are not embracing seasonal work opportunities.

 

Not everyone agrees such a scheme is necessary. Migration Watch, for instance, believes the focus should be on investment in technology and incentives to recruit more British workers.

 

Farming, it needs to be said, is already committed to improvements in productivity.

 

Moreover, investment in technology and the workforce takes time to yield positive results.

 

It is a long-term strategy and farmers do not have the luxury of time. They need security of labour supply now.

 

At least now the Government understands there is widespread political support for a scheme, thanks to last week’s debate.

 

Let us hope it listens and acts accordingly.

 

The need for certainty for farmers extends not only to labour supply, however. Agricultural producers also need to have confidence in the broader economic context.

 

To put it another way, farmers need to know where they are with Brexit.

 

The sooner Government recognises this and comes up with a coherent, workable plan for Brexit, the better. Not just for farmers, but for all of us.

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