Home Secretary Suella Braverman could be set to clash with the Prime Minister and Defra colleagues after saying she would clampdown on the UK’s reliance on seasonal workers.
Ms Braverman’s comments came as part of her first address as Home Secretary to Conservative Party members at the Tory conference which was held in Birmingham this week and are in marked contrast to those of Prime Minister Liz Truss who, while campaigning for the party leadership this summer, pledged to enlarge the scheme.
Earlier this week, the new Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mark Spencer, also addressed the issue, saying that ‘conversations’ were being had with the Home Office. However, he was quick to add that the talks marked a ‘step forward’ and not a guarantee.
He told those gathered at a NFU fringe meeting: “It is not a promise to deliver those extra numbers, but it is certainly a promise to try and to work with the Home Office to deliver.”
He continued: “We understand the challenge you are facing – I certainly understand that challenge. I will do everything I can to convince the Home Office to give you that certainty.
“I have lots of friends in similar businesses who are saying, ‘Why am I mucking about growing cauliflowers and salads, I may as well lay all the blokes off and store widgets in the backhouse and just grow wheat.’ I fully get that.”
However, Ms Braverman insisted that UK residents should be trained as butchers and fruit pickers in order to end the sector’s reliance on foreign labour and that the UK’s ‘newfound’ freedom from the EU meant that the Government should only allow migration that ‘grows our economy’.
She said: “The truth is parts of our system are not delivering. We need to end the abuse of the rules and cut down on those numbers that are not meeting the needs of our economy. And we must not forget how to do things for ourselves. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot train up enough of our own HGV drivers, butchers, or fruit-pickers.
“The way we will build a high-skilled and high-wage economy is by encouraging business to invest in capital and domestic labour. Not relying wholly on low skilled foreign workers,” she continued.
A recent survey by the NFU found that labour shortages have seen £22 million worth of fruit and vegetables wasted in the first half of 2022, with worst-case estimates putting the figure at around £60m.
In response to the survey, NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said it was ‘nothing short of a travesty’ that food was being wasted at a time of soaring living costs, demanding that the Seasonal Workers Scheme (SWS) was allowed to provide enough people to pick, pack and process produce.
He said: "This means increasing the number of visas available to meet the sector’s needs and expanding it to a minimum of a five-year rolling scheme to enable growers to have confidence to invest in their business," he said.