Gill Laishley, deputy director of food and rural affairs, said the government department was ‘trying to establish a better evidence-based system’

A top Defra official has confirmed the government’s current labour policy has been “reactionary” when it comes to seasonal workers, and admitted more could have been done to help safeguard post-Brexit workers for the fruit & veg sector.

Giving evidence to a House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee meeting yesterday, Gill Laishley, deputy director of food and rural affairs at Defra, said the government department was “trying to establish a better evidence-based system” on the matter.

She pointed to the government’s ongoing independent labour review, led by former G’s Group boss John Shropshire as a key example of this work, which comes amid ongoing concerns over chronic labour shortages across the fresh produce sector.

“We could have seen this coming that the EU settled status numbers has changed the landscape. Clearly that was quite predictable,” she added, when questioned on whether the shortages should have been addressed sooner.

It “may be a little overdue but it is in hand now”, she said. “We are looking to identify what the problem is across the food sector from farming through to manufacturing,” Laishley added, referencing the review into the domestic labour force, immigration and automation.

Defra said the decision to expand the seasonal workers numbers to 45,000 for 2023 followed an NFU recommendation that was then confirmed to be accurate by the government department.

Laishley said she recognised that “at the moment it is a little bit reactionary” and “in terms of having a broader view of what the whole problem is, that is something we are conscious we need to do”.

In addition to the independent labour review, Laishley pointed to a separate review being carried out by the Home Office into the shortage occupation list as part of supporting the wider labour market.

It follows long-term complaints from the sector that the Seasonal Worker scheme had not been representative of the labour required by growers, with uncertainty around the scheme every year causing farmers stress.

The NFU last week announced its growth strategy to keep fruit & veg on the shelves, a core component of which was labour.

“We cannot afford to get to the end of this calendar year and still not know if that scheme is being extended beyond 2024, we will be in the final year again,” said Lee Abbey, NFU chief horticulture and potatoes advisor at the time of the launch. “The amount of last-minute decisions we have had from government, it has been very damaging to businesses and that has played a massive part in the declining production of the last few years, the lack of confidence on labour.”

Laishley said she recognised there had been delays to the scheme last year due to a change in where workers came from (moving from Ukraine to places like Nepal and Indonesia), and the late announcement of visa numbers, which “didn’t help”.

“This year I think we are on the front foot and the visas have been announced earlier,” said Laishley.

However, NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said at the time of the scheme’s confirmation in December that the visa announcement had come too late, as some growers had already reduced production for 2023.

This was echoed by Ali Capper, executive chair of British Apples & Pears, who said: “It is a shame we had to wait so long. To be towards the end of December again [means] businesses can’t plan, there is no certainty. But the increase in the number of permits and the additional permit operators are all welcomed by the industry.”