Government delays over seasonal labour create fruit harvest fears

“Unacceptable delays” have placed British producers at the bottom of the government's priorities list, leading to costly and unnecessary uncertainty for the soft fruit industry.

Neil Parish MP

That was the finding of a Westminster committee as it looked into the delays in the seasonal agricultural workers pilot project, which was supposed to help provide the necessary migrant labour to harvest the country’s fruit and veg.

Neil Parish MP, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee, said that with the peak harvesting season beginning in a matter of weeks the UK government had only appointed the final two operators to run the pilot during the past few days – leaving insufficient time to recruit labour overseas and supply staff to the farms which needed them.

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"Despite last year's 'Pick for Britain' pilot scheme, our report made it clear that overseas labour is still very much needed, and the government's efforts to recruit more domestic labour cannot hope to be sufficient for this summer's harvest,” said Parish.

"As the reports of daffodils going unpicked this spring made clear the need also goes well beyond just edible horticulture.”

Parish said that that before Christmas, the committee had warned the government of the huge consequences of keeping plans for seasonal labour vague until the very last minute.

"There can be no excuse for further hold-ups—the Home Office need to start listening to the agricultural sector now to minimse the impact on British farmers."

The group of MPs also repeated its call for the seasonal workers pilot scheme to be broadened to include other food supply chain and agricultural sectors beyond edible horticulture – including the important role of official veterinarians (OVs) working in abattoirs.

NFU Scotland policy manager David Michie welcomed many of the statements in the committee’s report which reflected concerns which had been raised by the union with the UK government in recent months.

“Our members have been on the sharp end of the delays in the seasonal workers pilot scheme, which have caused unnecessary anxiety about getting fruit picked and paid for, rather than it being left to rot in the field,” said Michie.

“The announcement of the full list of operators for the seasonal workers pilot scheme just weeks before the season starts to peak was unacceptable.”

But claiming further improvement were still required in the scheme, he said that the government should listen to what the report was telling it and also to the concerns of farmers themselves and ensure the next phase of the scheme developed into something which worked really well for both businesses and workers.

He said one of our biggest concerns was the high cost of visas for the new scheme relative to previous SAWS.

“This cost is high for both the worker and the grower, affecting the morale of the people picking the fruit and the bottom line of the businesses growing it,” said Michie who added that the union wanted both red tape and cost to be addressed by the Home Office.

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