Britain’s seasonal labour shortage could pale into insignificance if it crashes out of the EU next March under a ‘no-deal’ scenario.
The EU Commission recently published a paper setting out in clear terms what this would mean for EU citizens wanting to come to the UK after March 30, 2019.
The document, entitled ‘Preparing for the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union’ states starkly: “There will be no specific arrangements in place for EU citizens in the EU of for UK citizens in the EU.”
William Houstoun, general manager of the 18-member Angus Growers group, said: “This is the first time I have seen anything in writing on this. If I was an EU worker considering coming here next summer to pick fruit this would make me very unsure.
“I would wonder about health care provision among other things and it might make me think Germany was a safer option.”
Fruit growers have been desperately lobbying in recent weeks for the reinstatement of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) to allow workers from outside the EU to come to the UK.
But in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, such a scheme would be needed immediately to cover EU workers, such as those who come to the UK from Bulgaria and Romania and make up the bulk of the 4,000 pickers employed seasonally by members of Angus Growers.
If there was no SAWS, these workers would have no mechanism under which they would qualify for work and the fruit would go unpicked.
Mr Houstoun added: “This is an urgent situation. The Government has said it will decide in September whether there is to be SAWS scheme but this is when our members will start to recruit for next year.
“The Migration Advisory Committee is expected to report in September. We cannot have delays; there is simply not enough time left.”
The section on ‘Citizens’ says: If the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified before March 30, 2019, EU law will cease to apply to and in the UK on January 1, 2021, i.e. after a transition period of 21 months.
If the Withdrawal Agreement is not ratified before March 30, 2019, there will be no transition period and EU law will cease to apply to and in the UK as of March, 30, 2019. This is referred to as the ‘no-deal’ or ‘cliff-edge’ scenario.
Creating a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is not a migration issue, it is a licensing issue, according to the SNP’s MP for Perth and North Perthshire, Pete Wishart.
He was at West Jordanstone Farm, Alyth last week in his role as chairman of Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, along with MPs David Duguid, Hugh Gaffney and Jed Gillen.
Rowan Marshall, his partner Jennifer Telfer and his parents Pete and Meg employ more than 300 Eastern European pickers and are members of the Angus Growers group.
This has been a difficult fruit season for them, with an estimated 50 tonnes of soft fruit left unpicked.
Without a scheme similar to the old SAWS, which was discontinued in 2013, the Marshalls can only see the problem of attracting pickers becoming worse.
Mr Wishart said: "This is not an issue with Defra. The problem lies with the Home Office and the Prime Minister and that is who we have to convince.”
Before the parliamentarians set off into a polytunnel to pick some strawberries, Mr Duguid said: "I believe a new SAWS would need to allow labour to come from outside the EU as well."
Sri Lanka, India, Belorussia and Ukraine are all seen as possible sources.
Mr Gaffney suggested growers should look no further than Scotland.
"Why not just drive a bus into George Square in Glasgow and see who wants to come?" he asked.
Ms Telfer, who is responsible for training the pickers, replied: "It makes me very annoyed when people suggest that it might be as easy as that. I have trained local pickers often and been glad to do it, but they never stay."
NFU Scotland vice-president Martin Kennedy said: "Our survey of soft fruit and vegetable growers at the start of this year predicted that, without the reinstatement of an effective seasonal workers scheme, the difficulties encountered in recruiting staff in 2017 would only be exacerbated this season.
"Political dithering on this matter has seen those fears become a reality."