Brexit: Get ready for the Strawberry Tax

Fruit farmers warn that labour shortages could added between 30 and 50 per cent to the price of a punnet. That could turn out to be the least of our problems

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
@JimMooreJourno
Thursday 22 June 2017 16:18
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Wimbledon says the price of its strawberries and cream has been held for seven years. That could soon change
Wimbledon says the price of its strawberries and cream has been held for seven years. That could soon change

Remember when Angela Leadsom, while serving as Environment Secretary, suggested that young people should head out into the fields in the summer to pick fruit for farmers denied EU workers?

It doesn’t look as if they’re all that keen on the idea.

Industry body British Summer Fruits is warning that the price of strawbs, and raspberries too, could surge by between 30 and 50 per cent in the event that the people who grow them are denied access to their main labour force.

That would be the thousands of people who come to Britain from Bulgaria and Romania to do the job.

Unlike, I’d imagine, Ms Leadsom, it's a job I've also done, albeit briefly.

It was in the days before the minimum wage, and you were paid based on how many you picked. At the end of our shift, I sat with a friend to tot up our earnings. We could barely afford to buy a few beers after the train fare home.

This after spending a day in a field having our backs broken while being shouted at by a snotty gang master. Needless to say, I didn’t last very long.

In need of money as I was, I also spent some time pruning apple trees, which was less hard on your back, but did result in the removal of the top of part of one of my fingers. The secateurs were very sharp.

As such, I personally think we could do with paying a bit more for our fruit because then the people who come from half way across Europe to pick it for us might get paid a bit more.

But I'd imagine that I’m in the minority there.

At the end of the day, I suspect that the potential price increase might not end up being quite as much as 50 per cent. These reports do tend to exaggerate a bit to make headlines and get their point across. But we still face what you could describe as the Brexit Strawberry Tax unless action is taken.

It probably will be. Eventually ministers will get fed up of having to listen to Tories from agricultural constituencies complaining because they’re getting fed up with farmers comparing at their local Conservative club.

Assuming we quit the single market, with its free movement of people, the Home Office will no doubt cook up some cynical little scheme that facilitates Romanians and Bulgarians and others from that part of the world coming over on some sort of agricultural visa, which they'll have to pay for out of their own pockets.

If I was them I’d be tempted to tell Amber Rudd’s people where they could stick that, but the economic reality that has them coming here now will probably keep them coming here.

So there’s a chance that the Brexit Strawberry Tax will only be around for a short time, perhaps just long enough for Wimbledon to put its prices up. According its website the £2.50 you'll pay for a minimum of ten strawberries and cream has been frozen forr seven years. It’s a lot easier to do something about that when there’s someone else to blame.

Michael Gove and/or Boris Johnson would richly deserve being referred to as “the man who brought you the Strawberry Tax” if their desperate desires to assume leadership of the Tory Party are ever realised. It’d be a particularly good insult for Jeremy Corbyn to throw at the latter when he's dribbling on about mugwumps, or trying some even more obscure word from his Trumpian thesaurus to demean his opponents

As for the rest of us, well, with nursing applications already crashing, and a host of other vital parts of the economy desperately afraid of what might happen if the Brexiteer crazies roar back and get their way, the Strawberry Tax may turn out to be one of the least of our problems.

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