The UK government has come under fire from farmers and industry groups for failing to adequately consider the impact of its proposed new immigration policy on the UK agricultural sector.
The government set out on Wednesday (19 February) the new plans for a points-based immigration system, designed to open up the UK to what Home Secretary Priti Patel called “the brightest and the best from around the world.”
However, in a statement on the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) website, President Minette Batters expressed serious concerns about the plans, saying that British food and farming, the country’s largest manufacturing sector, “is at the very core of our economy and any immigration policy must deliver for its needs.”
“We have said repeatedly that for farm businesses, it is about having the full range of skills needed – from pickers and packers to meat processors and vets – if we are to continue to deliver high quality, affordable food for the public,” she added.
“Failure to provide an entry route for these jobs will severely impact the farming sector.”
On the back of this criticism, the UK department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) announced on Wednesday that it will quadruple the number of workers farms can recruit on a temporary basis from outside the EU during peak production periods.
Environment Secretary George Eustice confirmed that the expansion of the seasonal workers pilot, which was launched in 2019, will allow farmers to hire up to 10,000 workers in 2020, up from the previous 2,500 workers that the scheme allowed.
In a statement on the UK government website, Eustice said the “farmers and growers I’ve spoken to have made a powerful case for needing more workers during the coming busy months.”
“Expanding our seasonal workers pilot will help our farms with the labour they need for this summer’s harvest while allowing us to test our future approach further.”
This workforce boost will complement the EU workers already travelling to the UK this year to provide seasonal labour on farms. The pilot will be evaluated before any decisions are taken on how the future needs of the sector will be addressed.
However, industry groups have criticised the pilot as ineffective due to the fact that many businesses reported that the number of seasonal workers has already fallen sharply since the Jun 2016 referendum.
Nick Marston, chairman of British summer fruits, said the sector had already suffered staff shortages of 10-20% in 2018 according to an article published on FarmingUK.
“Although the expansion of the seasonal workers scheme will ease some of the pressure for the coming season, growers remain very concerned about how they will recruit vitally important seasonal workers in future,” Batters said.
She therefore urged the UK government to commit to delivering a full scheme for 2021, ensuring the sector will be able to recruit the 70,000 seasonal workers needed on British fruit, veg and flower farms.
“It is ironic that the government, on the one hand, is encouraging more people to increase the amount of fruit and veg in diets, yet, on the other hand, making it harder for that fruit and veg to be produced in Britain,” Batters said.
“There are several issues within this proposed policy that need addressing, not least the incredibly short timeframe given for businesses to prepare, and we will be contributing to any consultation to ensure the views of Britain’s farmers are heard.”
The UK requires approximately 80,000 seasonal agricultural workers every year and the Office for National Statistics has stated that in the past, 99% of these workers have come from countries within the EU.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]