Britain’s farming and environment minister George Eustice said on Wednesday he would push for more agricultural workers to be allowed to come to Britain from other countries under a seasonal scheme once free movement from the European Union ends.
The seasonal workers scheme currently allows 10,000 workers to come to Britain to work in agriculture but farmers have been seeking an expansion to 70,000 workers when they are no longer able to bring in workers from the EU under free movement rules.
Eustice said he had pressed hard for expanding the seasonal scheme to 10,000 from 2,500 for this year even though EU workers will still be free to come to Britain until the end of the transition agreement on December 31, 2020.
“Of course if we are not going to have free movement for a so-called low-skilled labour route for other countries in the European Union then the policy remedy will be the seasonal agricultural workers scheme and it will need to be expanded,” he told the National Farmers Union (NFU) annual conference.
Ali Capper, who produces about 10 million apples a year at her farm in Worcestershire in central England, said she would need to start recruiting seasonal workers for 2021 in the autumn of this year and so would need to know the details before then.
“If there is no labour, there is no business,” said Capper, who is chair of the NFU’s horticulture board.
British farming has begun its greatest upheaval in decades following the country’s departure from the EU.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed Eustice as farming and environment minister earlier this month. He had held more junior positions in the ministry for several years.
He will have to lobby within cabinet on issues such as expanding the seasonal workers scheme and some farmers are concerned he may lack the influence of some of his better known predecessors such as Michael Gove.
NFU president Minette Batters said Gove had initially had little knowledge about the industry but “could make the case to treasury and right across government”.
“I think that is the challenge George Eustice faces. Is everything he is saying going to be able to resonate right across cabinet, is he going to able to influence the Home Office (interior ministry) on labour, the Department for International Trade on standards,” Batters said.
Britain formally left the EU on Jan 31 but will remain bound by the bloc’s laws and regulations during the transition period. Johnson has ruled out extending that period even if Britain and the EU have not yet reached a comprehensive trade agreement by Dec 31.