Source: Alamy 

It comes as the government was forced to deny rumours this week that it planned to scrap its ELMS farm subsidy scheme

The government must act on Liz Truss’s pre-election promises by rapidly expanding the seasonal workers scheme, industry bodies have urged.

British Apples & Pears chair Ali Capper said growers “need business enabling policy [to] come through at every level” and quickly. Many were now reducing production by at least 20% for next year due to concerns over labour supply and inflation-driven financial concerns, she pointed out.

“This uncertainty on labour availability combined with the unprecedented inflation in all costs means that growers are seriously questioning the future for their businesses,” Capper said.

During the Conservative Party leadership election race, Truss pledged to expand the seasonal workers scheme and “make sure the Home Office engages” on the issue at an NFU hustings.

Reports in the Financial Times and other media earlier this week reinforced that position by suggesting the new PM was poised to launch a review into the UK’s visa system to tackle widespread labour shortages.

While Capper agreed the “mood music” sounded good, she said the “devil would be in the detail”.

Capper also argued there should be no cap on the seasonal worker scheme and “all this nonsense and negotiations every year over numbers is meaningless as growers are not going to recruit more staff than they need due to the costs involved”.

Seasonal labour recruitment became “even more difficult the longer we are out of Europe because the gaps that have been filled historically by European nationals are widening because those wishing and able to come from the EU to do seasonal work have fallen off a cliff”, she said. 

Capper added that the scheme should also be expanded to nine months, up from six, and that Truss should introduce more official recruitment providers for the visa scheme, mas having “only four is quite restrictive.”

She said that the scheme had two permit operators when it had 2,500 permits to process which increased to four when they had 10,000 permits. However, this year the scheme has had 38,000 permits and the number of recruitment agencies has remained the same.

“Every business I talk to, it doesn’t matter which sector they are from, they are short of labour now, they are short of a workforce, so, we need to do something.” 

“The NFU has been clear about the importance of having an immigration system that meets the needs of British food and farming businesses, and allows the sector to recruit the much-valued people it needs,” said Tom Bradshaw, NFU deputy president. “Despite efforts to recruit domestically, critical and skilled jobs such as crop harvesting, packing, butchery and food processing are all facing significant shortages, and workers in these roles are essential in ensuring high-quality British food reaches the public.”

ELMS uncertainty

It comes amid wider concerns this week that the government is planning major changes to the sustainability-driven Environmental Land Management Scheme, which was designed to replace the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy as the main source of post-Brexit agricultural subsidies.

Food sector insiders fear the new policy could be scrapped entirely following a raft of media reports last weekend.

But Defra responded by denying the ELMS scheme was under threat – and was merely under review as part of the government’s Growth Plan.

In a statement it said “we’re not scrapping the schemes”, but instead looking at “how best to deliver the schemes to see where and how improvements can be made”.

However, the review – something the NFU broadly supported this week in light of soaring inflationary pressures – is driving uncertainty. Should implementation slow down, many fear the scheme could lose support and therefore prevent the UK from meeting its sustainable farming goals.

“The ELMs timetable and budget needs to be implemented faster rather than slowed down,” said Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain.

“Any review of the existing proposals would need to investigate specific concerns, such as the impact on upland or small farmers, but not halt the transition to a ‘public money for public goods’ approach.” 

How will Defra’s alternative to CAP subsidies work?