A pro-Brexit pressure group made up of MPs, including former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, has called for a five-year ban on unskilled migration and an ‘arbitrary’ annual cap on the number of seasonal farm workers entering the UK.
The group, Leave Means Leave, has published a report written by ex-UKIP MEP Stephen Woolfe which said only 50,000 seasonal agricultural workers should be granted permits each year. Mr Woolfe also suggested cutting the number to 30,000 from year two to ‘encourage businesses to train replacements’.
According to the British Growers Association, the horticultural industry already relies on over 75,000 seasonal workers from the EU, and that number is projected to increase to 92,000 by 2021. Horticulture businesses have been open about the difficulty they have in recruiting UK workers.
Charles Trotman, senior rural business adviser at the CLA, said: “Farmers need access to a seasonal labour force. It is a highly specific need and one for which there are easy solutions that have worked well in the past.
“It is easy to measure the need for workers every year and it is need which should determine the numbers in the scheme. It is unclear why this report’s authors think it is necessary to impose arbitrary tapers on the numbers involved.”
The ultimate aim of the immigration system sketched out by Mr Woolfe is to ‘reduce net migration to 50,000 a year’, but official figures showed there were 34,513 non-UK born workers employed in farming in 2014 – excluding seasonal workers.
This means agriculture alone would take up 69 per cent of the total quota for immigrants under the proposed plans.
NFU 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.”