Migrant tomato workers

Government ministers have played down the threat of labour shortages in the food and agriculture sectors, and claimed there is no immediate threat to the supply chain from the effects of the Brexit vote.

Giving evidence to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Wednesday (15 March), immigration minister Robert Goodwill and farming minister George Eustice both said there was currently “no evidence” the food sector had faced any difficulties attracting migrant labour.

The NFU and industry bodies including the British Growers Association have been calling for the reintroduction of the government’s now-defunct Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) for several months, amid fears of a lack of labour across the UK’s farms in the run-up to and after Brexit.

NFU president Meurig Raymond warned last month that food would “rot in the fields” without sufficient access to labour.

However, Goodwill said concerns over labour shortages after last June’s referendum had been unfounded.

“Some of these early stories were a bit of a scare story. We have not seen people being deterred from coming here to work. There is still lots of unemployment in parts of the EU, particularly among young people,” Goodwill added.

Citing Home Office immigration data, he said net migration from Romania and Bulgaria had actually increased by 82,000 to 286,000 last year, while migration from other EU countries had also risen.

“We did take the NFU’s claims seriously, but at the moment we don’t see the evidence to reintroduce SAWS,” he added. “The figures show that people are still coming through, but we will keep the situation under review.”