Government has announced up to 30,000 visas will be available for next year’s seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers who wish to come and work on UK farms for a period of up to six months.
Defra Secretary George Eustice said the extended measures, which also include further promotion of the Pick for Britain campaign and a review into automation in horticulture, will provide vital labour, both domestic and from aboard, to growers to help gather the 2021 harvest.
While welcoming the scheme, Nicholas Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits, questioned if the number of visas proposed would be sufficient to ensure all crops are picked and consumers have adequate supplies of British fresh produce and called on Government to take a ‘flexible approach’ to total visa numbers in the coming season.
NFU vice-president, Tom Bradshaw, said the expansion of the Seasonal Workers Pilot was positive news for British growers and shoppers who want to enjoy home-grown produce.
“Government is sending a clear message that it is important for Britain to be able to produce its own fruit and veg, which has huge potential for growth," Mr Bradshaw said.
However he recognised the number did not meet the sector’s entire seasonal workforce need, and said the organisation would ’work hard to find solutions to this extremely urgent issue’.
Jack Ward, chief executive officer of the British Growers Association, added the announcement recognised the vital role seasonal workers play in the fresh produce sector and echoed Mr Bradshaw’s sentiments there are ’real opportunities’ to build the UK’s horticulture industry.
Mark Bowyer, operations manager at Wealmoor, said while a positive step, the scheme’s expansion was no magic cure to the labour issue and currency and travel restrictions will factor into the mix next year.
The upscale of the scheme, from 10,000 to 30,000 permits, comes after years of strong lobbying efforts following the referendum to ensure the sector can employ up to 70,000 seasonal agricultural workers from outside the UK.
NFU Scotland (NFUS) said the ‘hard-won’ announcement will provide essential certainty and clarity to the sector that it can overcome projected labour input challenges post-Brexit.
James Porter, chairman of NFUS specialist crops committee, added the success of the measure was yet to be known and it will depend on the number of Pre-Settled and Settled workers returning from the EU in 2021.
Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing highlighted the figure failed to meet Scotland’s need, let alone the number of current vacancies in the UK.
"A temporary programme proposed by the UK Government prohibits longer-term settlement of people working in key sectors,” Mr Ewing said.
“Scotland needs a tailored migration policy to meet the needs of employers and communities.
“Last minute extensions of a pilot scheme is no substitute for a comprehensive migration plan.”