A former Tory Cabinet minister’s suggestion that pensioners should pick fruit to reduce the number of East European immigrants coming to the UK - and pay them less than the minimum wage because they’d be too slow - has been almost universally dismissed as a bad idea.
Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary between 2012 and 2014, "stunned" Cabinet colleagues by suggesting that retired people should be enlisted to reduce the number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers flocking west for work.
The claims were made in the memoirs of former Liberal Democrat minister David Laws.
The Government did close a scheme which gave Romanian and Bulgarian migrants temporary six-month permits three years’ ago, despite farmers complaining they find it difficult to get British workers to take seasonal work.
Extracts published in the Mail on Sunday claim even the "more right wing" senior Tories around the Cabinet table were shocked.
Mr Laws wrote: "Someone suggested that while abolishing the scheme might reduce immigration, it could also be very unpopular with farmers, who would no longer find it easy to employ cheap labour for back-breaking outdoor work. 'Oh, but I've thought of that', said Paterson. 'I think I have the answer. We'll try to get more British pensioners picking some of the fruit and vegetables in the fields instead.'
"One of the officials taking notes looked up in surprise, clearly thinking she had heard incorrectly. She hadn't. And Paterson hadn't finished. 'Of course, getting British pensioners to do this work could lead to an increase in farmers' costs,' he said. 'After all, they may be a bit slower doing the work. I've thought of that too. I think we might arrange to exempt British pensioners from the minimum-wage laws, to allow them to do this work.'
"Cabinet colleagues, even the more right-wing Conservatives, listened in stunned silence. The official now realised she had indeed heard correctly, and tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh."
Twitter reacted how many might expect.
Pick your own bloody fruit Owen Patterson https://t.co/4HGos7NuEM— Minnie's Mum (@miniesmum) March 14, 2016
Of course we *could* put Tory MPs to pick fruit at below the minimum wage. That might be a popular policy.— Paul Bernal (@PaulbernalUK) March 14, 2016
Blimey! Osborne wants us to work till we're 70 then crazy Owen Paterson wants to make us pick fruit till we drop!? https://t.co/hzxSba1cg8— Bob Hudson (@Bob__Hudson) March 13, 2016
Pensioners should be picking fruit and maybe doing some light spade work if they're able. pic.twitter.com/su8wvPizPC— General Boles (@GeneralBoles) March 13, 2016
Though some thought it wasn't so awful.
and what’s wrong with pensioners picking fruit? My fabulously eccentric and indomitable aunt chose to pick strawberries until she was 70.— Fiona-Natasha Syms (@fifisyms) March 13, 2016
Paterson denied the claims, telling Sky News the story was "completely wrong", claiming the scheme worked "very well".
He said: “There is a very good scheme called the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme which is wrongly described for a start in the Laws piece, which brought in a very targeted number, 20,250, Romanians and Bulgarians, before they were opened up to unlimited access and it worked really well.
“They came to targeted spots, had proper accommodation and good catering but they went back at the end of the season and I was very keen to keep it on.
“We looked at all sorts of options of how we could substitute them once there was open season from the 1st January 2014, right, so the story was wrong.
"There might be other stories that are wrong in that long, long piece."