A top Conservative minister suggested that pensioners should be put to work picking fruit for less than the minimum wage, Liberal Democrat David Laws has claimed.
The then environment secretary Owen Paterson is said to have proposed his idea in 2013 as a way of cutting eastern European immigration.
He told a Cabinet Coalition meeting that he planned to scrap a scheme allowing EU migrants to come to the UK and take up low-paid agricultural work. And while he said he realised that scrapping the Agricultural Workers Scheme might make problems for farmers, he claimed to have found a solution.
"We'll try to get more British pensioners picking some of the fruit and vegetables in the fields instead," he reportedly said.
"Of course, getting pensioners to do this work could lead to an increase in farmers' costs. After all, they may be a bit slower doing the work. I've thought of that too. We might arrange to exempt British pensioners from the minimum-wage laws, to allow them to do this work."
According to Mr Laws, the suggestion was received in stunned silence, even by the more right-wing MPs.
The remarks, allegedly made in 2013, are revealed in Laws' new book, Coalition: The Inside Story Of The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition.
Paterson hasn't denied making them, although he has claimed to the Mirror that Laws' account is misleading as 'we looked at all sorts of options'.
From December 2018, the state pension age will start to increase for both men and women, and will reach 66 by October 2020. And the government is planning further increases, lifting it to 67 between 2026 and 2028.
But there's already concern that people in many jobs simply won't be able to carry on working this long - and back-breaking agricultural work would certainly fall into this category.
National Pensioners Convention spokesman Neil Duncan-Jordan has called Paterson's idea 'a ridiculous suggestion' that 'smacks of desperation'. while Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: "This is Owen Paterson treating pensioners as cheap labour."
Until the middle of the last century, many older people ended up in workhouses, where they were expected to carry out tasks such as breaking stones, crushing bones to produce fertiliser or picking oakum. Workhouses were finally abolished when the National Assistance Act of 1948 came into force: are they now set for a return?