One use - migrant veg pickers

Fruit and veg growers are becoming increasingly desperate over the government’s failure to address the growing labour crisis in the sector, which is in danger of becoming terminal, the NFU has warned.

Growers were “deeply concerned” about the lack of action, said NFU horticulture board chairman Ali Capper, who warned the board had drawn a “line in the sand” deadline of late September for the government to take action.

“If an immigration Bill hasn’t been published by this point, or it doesn’t have the clarity we need, we will have to find a different way of tackling this issue with the government,” she said.

“Businesses are now running out of time. We rely on recruiting returnees from year to year, and we have clear data showing the number of people returning has reduced quite significantly,” she added. “I’m very concerned we won’t have the numbers next year, when we will still be in the EU, and the situation will only get worse once we leave.”

Some industry commentators had been heartened by farming minister George Eustice’s comments in a parliamentary debate last week, when he told MPs the Home Office intended to commission the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to investigate the need to revive a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS).

However, a Home Office spokesman told The Grocer this week there had been no change in its position on migration, with no news of when a migration bill would be published, while the MAC committee had yet to be commissioned.

“The reality of this situation is that if we don’t have the seasonal workers we need, food will rot in the fields and we will have to import,” Capper added. “And if we do that, food prices will inevitably rise. This set of circumstances should be an ideal opportunity for heavy investment in British production, but we are already seeing the opposite, with several big businesses already investing in other parts of Europe where labour is plentiful,” she said.

“We’re reaching a crunch point. Unless the government acts now, the big business that have disinvested won’t come back to the UK.”

British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward said the potential commissioning of the MAC committee represented a “gradual dawning” from government that creating a post-Brexit migration policy may not be as clear cut as the government’s rhetoric had suggested. “The government doesn’t have any semblance of a plan over how everything is going to work on this matter.”

However, British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins added that “even if the government asked the MAC committee to do a report into SAWS it would still take several months”.

The government was “sitting on its hands” on the issue of migrant labour, he added. “That order has not been signed, it’s sitting on Amber Rudd’s desk, so we are no further forward on this issue.”