A Government plan to replace migrant workers in the agricultural sector with prisoners has been branded ‘a distraction’ by NFU horticulture board chair Ali Capper.
Justice Secretary David Gauke announced the proposal in a speech delivered at a young offenders’ institute in Thamesmead, South-East London, last week.
He suggested prisoners who have been risk-assessed could be rewarded for good behaviour with jobs on farm under the workplace release on temporary licence (ROTL) scheme.
“Leaving the EU is likely to have an impact on the workforce in sectors such as catering, construction and agriculture”, Mr Gauke said.
“I see an opportunity here for both prisoners and employers, particularly those operating in these sectors.
“By expanding the use of ROTL for work, more prisoners will not only be able to get a foot through the door to sectors like these, but employers will be better able to fill short-term skills gaps whilst also developing potential permanent employees for the longer term.”
But Ali Capper, chair of the NFU’s horticulture board, told Farmers Guardian the plan was not an answer to the labour shortage.
“On a localised level, it might help to fill some gaps, but there are 80,000 seasonal roles to grow, pick and pack fruit and veg”, she said.
“The industry has engaged with this before and the numbers are not there. For me, it is a distraction.”
Ms Capper also raised concerns about the scheme’s inability to provide a steady, consistent workforce over a six to nine-month period and the possibility that retailers could reject any attempt to hire prisoners.
“There are quite significant retailer audits which look very closely at how staff are being recruited and where they are coming from”, she said.
“I have not had a conversation with anyone in retail about it, but I would not be sure every retailer would be comfortable with it.”
A Defra spokesman said it was not Government policy to completely fill any agricultural labour shortage with prisoners, and the department is working closely with the Home Office to ensure the sector’s needs are met after Brexit.
“Up until December 2020, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors will be free to recruit EU citizens to fill vacancies and those arriving to work will be able to stay in the UK afterwards”, the spokesman added.