NFU President Minette Batters has expressed serious concerns about the government’s failure to recognise British food and farming’s needs within its proposed immigration policy in the wake of the Government’s announcement on post-Brexit immigration.
Setting out a new points-based system from January 2021, the Home Office said it was ending free movement and would ‘not implement a route for lower-skilled workers’. This means visas would not be awarded to workers requiring qualifications equivalent to below an A-level or to be paid less than £25,600 per year.
But the ‘most highly skilled’, who can achieve the required level of points, will be able to enter the UK without a job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant and competent body.
New Defra Secretary George Eustice has announced the Government will quadruple the number of seasonal workers to 10,000 workers in 2020 under the Seasonal Workers Pilot, but the benefits will be largely limited to the horticulture sector and will not go far enough in that, according to iMrs Batters.
She said: “As the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, British food and farming is at the very core of our economy and any immigration policy must deliver for its needs.
“We have said repeatedly that for farm businesses it is about having the full range of skills needed – from pickers and packers to meat processors and vets – if we are to continue to deliver high quality, affordable food for the public. Failure to provide an entry route for these jobs will severely impact the farming sector.
“Automation will have a vital role to play and we fully support investment in this area, but it is not yet a viable option to replace the number of people we need and farmers will need a practical solution in the meantime. There are also some jobs that simply cannot be replaced by technology.
“Although the expansion of the Seasonal Workers Scheme will ease some of the pressure for the coming season, growers remain very concerned about how they will recruit vitally important seasonal workers in future. We are urging Government to commit to delivering a full scheme for 2021, which will enable us to recruit the 70,000 seasonal workers needed on British fruit, veg and flower farms. It is ironic that the government on the one hand is encouraging more people to increase the amount of fruit and veg in diets, yet on the other hand making it harder for that fruit and veg to be produced in Britain.
“There are several issues within this proposed policy that need addressing, not least the incredibly short timeframe given for businesses to prepare, and we will be contributing to any consultation to ensure the views of Britain’s farmers are heard.”
Farming is the bedrock of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, food and drink, which contributes more than £120 billion to the national bank and employs more than 4 million people, she added.
Announcing the expansion of the Seasonal Workers Pilot, Defra Secretary George Eustice said: “The farmers and growers I’ve spoken to have made a powerful case for needing more workers during the coming busy months.
“Expanding our Seasonal Workers Pilot will help our farms with the labour they need for this summer’s harvest, while allowing us to test our future approach further.
“We will always back our farmers and growers, who produce world-famous British food to some of the highest standards anywhere in the world.”
The Seasonal Workers Pilot opened in 2019 and is designed to test the effectiveness of the immigration system at supporting UK growers during peak production periods, whilst maintaining robust immigration control. It will allow farms to hire workers for a period of up to six months and will continue to run until the end of 2020.
The expansion will allow government to keep testing how this pilot operates further, while helping to ease some of the pressure felt on farms when they are at their busiest.
Although the numbers are increasing based on the success of the pilot so far, it is not designed to meet the full labour needs of the horticultural sector. This workforce boost will complement the EU workers already travelling to the UK this year to provide seasonal labour on farms during the busy harvest months.
The pilot will be evaluated ahead of any decisions being taken on how future needs of the sector will be addressed.