Defra secretary of state Andrea Leadsom has confirmed the government will not create a pilot seasonal workers scheme because evidence shows it is “not needed”.
Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday (20 April), she said: “The government have assessed the need for a pilot seasonal workers scheme, and have decided that the evidence shows that one is not needed.
“As I have said, the Migration Advisory Committee and a consultation with businesses later this year will seek to determine exactly what the need is, and the Government are committed to making a huge success of the food and farming sector as we leave the EU.”
The news comes just days after Leadsom visited fruit grower WB Chambers, in Kent, to hear more about the challenges in recruiting seasonal labour.
MP Helen Whately, who hosted the visit in her constituency of Faversham and Mid Kent, said Leadsom left Kent in “no doubt of how badly such a scheme is needed”.
Jack Ward, CEO of British Growers’ Association, said the government is very aware of the needs of the sector and the importance of finding a practical solution to the labour issue. "The challenge is where does a future sector visa scheme fit within the wider discussions on UK citizenship which is the number one issue on the Brexit agenda," he said.
"The UK economy relies heavily on EU labour. Currently there are around 3.5 million EU nationals employed in the UK. It is unrealistic for any administration to think in terms of cutting off this supply of vital labour without running the risks of inflicting major damage on UK industry."
The government has been distancing itself from a move to create a pilot seasonal workers scheme in recent months, despite positive noises from immigration minister Robert Goodwill at the start of the year. Goodwill has since stated the government “does not believe there is a need”.
An industry source told FPJ that one barrier to a seasonal workers scheme could be issues around not being able to check whether workers leave the country after their temporary visa expires, linked to Brexit immigration debates, as well as the design, IT and civil service resources involved in setting such a scheme up.
The NFU has been lobbying for a pilot replacement seasonal workers scheme to take place this year, but today issued a statement that simply called for "access to sufficient numbers of permanent and seasonal workers post-Brexit".
Deputy president Minette Batters said: "An abrupt reduction in the number of EU workers able to work in the UK after we leave the EU would cause massive disruption to the entire food supply chain - a solution for the whole industry is needed to ensure the sector has access to the skills and labour it needs."
Looking ahead, Ward said one of the opportunities of a general election is to “reset the debate on border control”. “The Prime Minister has the opportunity to clarify that the UK economy depends on flow of labour. The general election is a good opportunity to get a commitment on what level of labour is required," he said.
In the Commons yesterday, Stuart McDonald SNP pressed Leadsom for further support in recruiting labour for the food industry.
He said: “The Secretary of State will surely have the good sense to join me in speaking up for the free movement of workers as the easiest way of avoiding horrendous labour shortages in the food and drink industry."
Leadsom replied: “We have already addressed the issue of seasonal workers in the agricultural sector, and it is important that we assess the needs there.”
She then went on the talk about the rights of workers already working and living in Britain. “It is exactly right to look after British workers who have moved to the EU at the same time as protecting the valuable contribution that EU citizens make in the UK,” she said.