Defra Secretary Michael Gove has told the farming industry to expect an announcement on a new seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme ‘shortly’.
Mr Gove drew applause from the NFU conference audience when he said the union had put forward ‘compelling’ arguments for a new scheme.
He also acknowledged the need for more permanent workers from overseas, and made clear he was speaking to the Migration Advisory Committee, tasked with looking at the UK’s post-Brexit labour needs, about putting access to farm workers at ‘the heart of their thinking’.
“Farming currently depends on access to labour from abroad, both seasonal and permanent”, he said.
“And also, often ignored by people outside this hall, much of that labour is very highly skilled.
“Whether it is stockmen and dairy workers, or the official vets in our abattoirs, 90 per cent of whom are from EU27 nations, agriculture needs access to foreign workers.
“It is already the case that the supply of EU27 labour is diminishing, partly because their economies are recovering and growing, so in the future we will need to look further afield than just the EU and we will need to think more creatively.
“I understand the impatience of people in this room for an announcement, I fully acknowledge your concerns and we will be saying more shortly.”
Mr Gove’s comments came as the Shadow Farming Minister, David Drew, promised the Labour Party would reinstate the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme with immediate effect and open it up to workers from countries such as Ukraine.
“We would bring back the SAWS because it was a proven success”, he said.
“It did provide enough labour, not just in terms of the seasonal bit, but in terms of the general provision of migrant labour which is desperately needed in many sectors of agriculture.
“I cannot understand why the Government is making it so difficult for itself and why the Home Office is blocking what Defra desperately wants.
“We had a debate well before the end of last year on the need for it, and yet here we are now, in mid-February, and we are no further forward on any scheme.”