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The government has announced plans to extend the seasonal worker visa route for five years until 2029 to give businesses time to plan effectively

The government has announced a raft of measures to tackle labour shortages in the food supply chain.

In its response to the John Shropshire Independent Review into Labour Shortages, Defra today commited to extending the seasonal worker visa route for five years until 2029, to give businesses time to plan their workforce effectively.

It said 43,000 visas would be available to the horticulture sector in 2025 along with another 2,000 visas for poultry.

Further detail on the number of visas available for 2026 to 2029 will be set out later this year.

Concerns had been growing over the future of the seasonal worker visa scheme, with NFU president Tom Bradshaw telling The Grocer last week that uncertainty over staffing meant the horticulture sector “don’t know if they’ll have a workforce for next year”.

“Businesses do best when they can plan effectively for the future, which is why we’ve extended the seasonal worker visa route until 2029 to give farmers and growers the certainty they need to thrive,” said environment secretary Steve Barclay.

The long-awaited announcement was welcomed by John Shropshire, who said it would “give growers the confidence to continue to invest in UK production”.

“However, I am disappointed that the visa length remains at six months, as the protected cropping industries of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers require a nine-month visa to match the length of their season and this is a key sector that ministers are keen to see expand in UK production to replace large amounts of imports,” he added.

This plea to extend the visa length was echoed by Ali Capper, chair of British Apples and Pears who said such a change would “better reflect the reality of the extended fresh produce growing season in the UK”. 

Capper added that previous uncertainty within the scheme was “incredibly stressful and entirely unnecessary” but “we can now plan for the long term. Just as we do when we plant young apple trees.” 

Nick Marston, chair of British Berry Growers also welcomed the change to the scheme but echoed calls for a longer season.

“We urge the government to provide a rolling five-year commitment,” he added. “This would avoid a return to the fraught uncertainty around labour which has threatened the sustainability of our industry.”

Marston also suggested that a trial of direct recuruitment by farms rather than through scheme operators, “would lead to a shorter supply chain, a more cost-effective system for growers and workers alike, and stronger relationships between farms and skilled seasonal workers”. 

Shropshire also said there was a notable exception in the announcement of any support for the meat industry to “mitigate the inflationary cost pressures the industry faces through the bureaucratic and costly visa process”.

The NFU also welcomed the propsed changes as “a huge relief”. 

“We have seen in the past how damaging shortages of workers has been, with approximately £60 million worth of crops lost in 2022 due to a shortfall of workers. We know that with the correct trading conditions there are significant opportunities for growth and the commitment to a five-year scheme is very positive,” Bradshaw said. “Moving forward, it is vital to have assurance that the number of visas and the costs associated with accessing them will continue to meet the needs of our food producers.” 

Automation funding

The government has also unveiled plans to support the automation of the sector and will start immediate work with a group of packhouses to understand the government support needed to make fully automated packhouses universally viable.

After this, a £50m package of packhouse automation funding will be made available, with further details to be announced later this year to cover 2024-25 and 2025-26.

Shropshire said the move would allow the industry to “reduce the dependency on seasonal labour” but the government “must do more to highlight the funding opportunities available in food production sectors”, he urged. This would enable all automation funding opportunities to be maximised.

Defra has additionally announced it will work with technology companies to accelerate the development of robotic crop harvesters – aiming to bring forward prototypes on a par with human pickers in three to five years.

”This is an incredibly complex area and many technology companies have struggled to create a workable solution,” said Capper. 

“When you’re trying to replicate the expert eyes and gentle hands of an experienced fruit picker, it’s not easy,” she added. “However, we are keen to see progress in the technology in this area and the government support could definitely help.” 

“We have a world-class food and drink sector, and the measures announced today will strengthen this by boosting funding for the cutting-edge technology that will reduce reliance on migrant labour in the long term,” said Barclay.

Attracting domestic workers

The announcement also stressed the government’s focus on creating a comprehensive strategy to enhance skills provision and attract domestic workers.

This work included collaborating with the Food & Drink Sector Council’s Sector Attractiveness Project Group to improve awareness of the diverse range of opportunities and career paths across the UK food chain, and working with the DWP to deliver regional recruitment strategies.

Government attempts to attract more UK workers to the food sector, especially in horticulture, have previously struggled to gain traction. Defra’s much-vaunted Pick for Britain scheme, launched in 2020, was scrapped a year later following limited success in attracting workers.

Defra has also provided seed funding to establish the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture, a new industry body that will support professional career development.

The announcements of these measures come ahead of the second annual Farm to Fork Summit on 14 May in Downing Street.

The summit will bring together representatives across the UK food supply chain to drive forward work to ensure British farming has the support and backing it needs to thrive for generations to come.

“I look forward to hearing further announcements next week at the No 10 Farm to Fork Summit, where I expect to hear more from the prime minister with regards to policy to further increase UK food security,” said Shropshire.