Debates between Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Lord Northbrook during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 23rd Jul 2020
Agriculture Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Agriculture Bill

Debate between Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale and Lord Northbrook
Committee stage & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 23rd July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-VII Seventh marshalled list for Committee - (23 Jul 2020)
Lord Northbrook Portrait Lord Northbrook (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support Amendment 218, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and other noble Lords. I declare my interests as a landowner and arable farmer.

At the time of the Second Reading of the Bill, there was a double-page government advert in the Mail on Sunday headlined: “Why there’s never been a better time to support our farmers and fishermen”.

It added:

“By buying local … you’ll be guaranteed to get the very best produce”.

However, the advert also said, revealingly:

“Another challenge for farmers has been getting enough people to harvest”

the vegetable and fruit crop. This can be fairly blamed, this year, on Covid-19, but the campaign to get local people to pick crops, to take the place of the EU pickers who normally do the job, does not seem to have gone very well. The Government have sensibly allowed foreign workers in this sector to be exempted from the quarantine rules. The fact remains that, as I understand it, from next year only 20,000 overseas workers will be allowed in the UK to do this work. The NFU says that 80,000 are needed.

My noble friend Lord Trenchard said that extra workers should be allowed in in the short term, but that automation will then solve the problem at the flick of a switch. I am far from being an expert on this subject, but I wonder whether automation could take place that quickly. It will certainly require time and a considerable amount of capital investment, which I hope will be aided by the ELM scheme. I therefore completely agree that Her Majesty’s Government should, as Amendment 218 states,

“lay before Parliament a strategy to ensure an appropriate supply of seasonal agricultural workers”.

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch is absolutely right to move this amendment. She spoke eloquently at the beginning of this group and I do not need to repeat any of her persuasive arguments. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Judd has moved his amendment, because affordable housing in rural and agricultural areas is vital and has been under threat for a long time. The availability of affordable housing for the agricultural and countryside workforce should be a vital component of the strategy demanded by the amendment.

There have been many excellent speeches, and I hope that the Minister and the Government are persuaded, but I shall add one more point that I do not think has been made by any other Members of your Lordships’ House during the debate. As someone who, as I have said before, grew up on a farmstead and was never very good at agricultural work—never mind ever wanting to be an agricultural worker—and who therefore got away quickly when I had the opportunity, at the age of 17, I have always been struck by the increasing development, over the decades, of a split between those who live in the town and those who live in the country.

One of the reasons for that is that it is so difficult for people who did not grow up in the countryside to become engaged with the opportunities for agricultural and other countryside work, or even to visualise themselves in that situation and see what it might entail. We have often discussed in your Lordships’ Chamber the lack of knowledge among children and young people who live in towns and cities about what goes on in the countryside. It is a contributory factor to their inability to see themselves in that line of work in the future. Among the many barriers to our having a good, secure agricultural workforce that my noble friend Lady Jones mentioned in introducing the debate, is the need to encourage new people to see that as an appropriate choice for their future.

I was struck by a scheme set up by Project Scotland, our national youth volunteering scheme, which was established when I was First Minister. One of its early projects was to take young people who were at risk of offending and who were in difficulties in the school environment away from school into full-time volunteering in agricultural and forestry work in Dumfries and Galloway. The life chances of those young people were transformed by finding something new and interesting, out of the town and out of their normal environment, that used their labour productively and suddenly gave them a real sense of purpose in life.

That is a model that could help with a lot of our social problems with certain kinds of young lads in different parts of the country, giving them a different kind of opportunity that maybe they have never seen before. If the Minister is minded to accept the amendment, or a form of it, during our debates on the Bill, and to have such a strategy in the future, one element of that strategy should be to see the opportunities that exist in agriculture and countryside work for those who may never have visualised themselves in that position, but who could find really productive careers and futures in it.