Ministers to treble number of foreign fruit and veg pickers to ease fears of rotting harvests

Ministers are poised to treble the number of foreign workers allowed into the UK to pick fruit and vegetables, to ease fears of rotting harvests as a result of Brexit.

In a major concession to worried farmers, 30,000 temporary staff will be given permits in 2021, up from 10,000 this year, under a document circulated for an announcement due next week.

The move comes despite the Home Office dismissing warnings that stricter post-Brexit immigration rules would leave crops unpicked, and insisting that domestic workers would plug the gap.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) attacked that stance, with the free movement of EU citizens due to stop when the transition period ends on 31 December.

The union pointed to how the government’s high-profile Pick For Britain campaign – launched when the Covid-19 pandemic prevented EU workers coming over for the summer – has failed to attract British replacements.

Now George Eustice, the environment secretary, has won a Whitehall battle for the annual ceiling of seasonal workers to be hiked to 30,000, higher than when a formal scheme was axed in 2013.

The Independent understands the announcement is expected on Tuesday, although the figure is still to be formally signed off by Downing Street.

In October, the NFU’s vice president, Tom Bradshaw, pleaded for more workers, saying: “We are at a critical time in recruitment for many growers.

“As freedom of movement ends on 31 December, those growers of iconic British daffodils, asparagus, and soft fruits still don't know where they will recruit experienced workers from.”

As recently as this month, the minister for immigration, Kevin Foster, dismissed fears of farms going to the wall, saying: “I think very few people are expecting a general labour shortage next year.”

That stance was, in turn, criticised by Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, who warned of “soft fruit going to waste” and said the idea of UK workers filling the void was unrealistic.

The easing is likely to increase pressure on ministers to consider exemptions from the new immigration rules for other sectors facing worsening worker shortages, particularly social care.

However, even a 30,000 limit is less than half the figure of 70,000 vacancies in horticultural picking that the NFU has said need to be filled.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) declined to comment on the seasonal workers issue ahead of any announcement.

Last month, a spokesperson said: “Seasonal workers are essential to bring in the harvest every year, which is why we are continuing to work hard to ensure our farmers and growers have the support and workforce they need.

“Now the UK has left the EU, Defra is working closely with the Home Office to ensure that there is a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce as part of future immigration policy.”

The post-Brexit immigration rules, from January, will impose a salary threshold of £25,600 for most workers seeking to enter the UK, who must be sponsored by employers.

They will also be required to speak English to “B1” level – meaning that they are fluent enough to be able to open a bank account, for example, and cope with “most situations” at home, work or leisure.

And most are expected to be charged about £1,200 for a work visa, or £900 in a small number of shortage occupations – the same fee currently paid by non-EU migrants.

Source: The Independent