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The pledge came as part of a wide-ranging package of support for the sector

The government has committed to extending its seasonal worker scheme for a further year as part of a package of support for farmers ahead of its key ‘farm to fork’ summit at 10 Downing Street today.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said the seasonal worker commitment – which will see 45,000 seasonal worker visas available again to the horticulture sector next year, and a further 10,000 if required – would enable producers to plan ahead for the picking season.

The announcement would give “further certainty” to growers, he added, and comes far earlier than seasonal worker visa commitments in previous years, with the government announcing numbers for the past two years in December – a date described as far too late for growers looking to plan for their next harvest.

However, it did not go as far as industry calls for a five-year rolling seasonal worker scheme, something NFU president Minette Batters told The Grocer last month would “stop this cliff-edge of waiting and having to go through the numbers [every year] before you know how many people you can recruit”. And its duration will remain at six months, rather than the nine months many in the fresh produce sector are campaigning for.

It comes despite reports of a growing rift within government over immigration policy, with home secretary Suella Braverman calling for immigration to be slashed at the conference of National Conservatism – a global right-wing thinktank – in London on Monday.

“There is no reason why we can’t train up enough truck drivers, butchers, fruit pickers or welders,” Braverman told delegates at the conference. “Brexit enables us to build a high-skilled, high-wage economy which is less dependent on low-skill foreign labour. That was our 2019 manifesto pledge – and it’s what we must deliver.”

The government’s pre-summit support announcement also includes the launch of reviews into fairness in the horticulture and egg supply chains, following similar probes into the dairy and pork supply chains and “in light of the impact of global challenges on these sectors in particular”.

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This followed an announcement of a supply chain fairness review by the Commons Efra Committee last week, while the Competition & Markets Authority yesterday announced it was launching a probe into supermarkets following accusations of profiteering on the back of the cost of living crisis.

Additionally, No 10 said it would not merge the Groceries Code Adjudicator with the CMA – as had been rumoured – after “listening to the calls from the NFU, FDF and others” and in recognition of “the unique role and needs of the sector”.

Farmers’ interests would also “be put at the heart of trade policy through a new framework for trade negotiations, committing to protect the UK’s high food and welfare standards and prioritise new export opportunities”, in a departure from the deals negotiated by Liz Truss with countries such as Australia and New Zealand – which have come under fire from the sector for opening the UK up to cheaper and often low-quality imports.

“The prime minister has written an open letter to farmers today setting out how these new principles will help the industry benefit from the trade opportunities available to us outside the EU,” No 10 said.

The government said it also planned to invest £2m to boost its global trade show programme, as well as providing £1.6m for its GREAT food and drink campaign.

Seafood exports will benefit from an extra £1m in funding between 2025 to 2028, while dairy businesses will also benefit from a £1m programme to help seize export opportunities, particularly in the Asia pacific region.

Meanwhile, up to £30m of investment to drive forward the use of precision breeding technologies has been pledged by government, building on the £8m it said it had already invested over the past five years and the passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act earlier this year.

Groceries Code Adjudicator: government scraps plans to merge with CMA

And it has also created a new working group – bringing together plant breeders, food manufacturers and retailers – to get produce from farms to the shelves. This followed the UK Fruit & Vegetable Alliance yesterday announcing it had resigned from the government’s Edible Horticulture Roundtable following the scrapping of the development of a proposed Defra horticulture strategy – a decision that was taken in January but only confirmed by farming minister Mark Spencer last week.

Sunak said he would “always back British farmers, and I pay tribute to their hard work and dedication all year round which keeps shelves stocked and food on our tables”.

Supporting farmers and food producers “must, and always will be, at the heart of our plans to grow the economy and build a more prosperous country”, he added.

“That’s why I’m proud to host this summit and, working together, I’m determined to build resilience, strengthen our food security and champion the best of British at home and overseas.”

The NFU’s Batters said she was “delighted” the PM had honoured previous commitments to host the summit and welcomed the announcement of the support package.

“They show a recognition and an understanding of the strategic importance of British food and farming to the nation,” she suggested.

“These actions recognise the importance of co-ordinated action across government to support confidence, investment and growth in British food. We look forward to working with the prime minister, the Defra secretary and the rest of the cabinet to back British farming and bolster our domestic food security.”