As soft fruit harvesting moves into top gear across Scotland, a cross-party group of MPs has condemned the UK government’s approach to the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme and warned of the risk recruitment delays now pose to this year’s crops.
The Government only announced the final two of four operators for the SWP earlier this month, leading the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) select committee to warn of the tight timeframe left for operators to recruit labour overseas and supply staff to farms which need them.
EFRA said it had warned the government in December of the huge consequence of keeping plans for seasonal labour vague, and the issue was raised again in April by local growers who claimed the government was sabotaging the scheme.
EFRA committee chair, Neil Parish MP said: “British growers have been placed at the bottom of the Home Office’s priorities list, and the unnecessary uncertainty could prove costly for producers.
“Despite last year’s ‘Pick for Britain’ pilot scheme, our report made it clear that overseas labour is still very much needed, and the Government’s efforts to recruit more domestic labour cannot hope to be sufficient for this summer’s harvest.”
The group of MPs also called for the SWP scheme to be broadened to include other food supply chain and agricultural sectors, and said it was concerned about recent evidence of shortages of skilled workers such as official vets working in abattoirs.
NFU Scotland (NFUS) welcomed the committee’s comments and said members had been on the sharp end of the delays in the SWP scheme which had caused anxiety about getting fruit picked and paid for rather than being left to rot in the field.
NFUS policy manager David Michie said: “We want lessons to be learned from this report and from the growers themselves. These lessons will help develop the next phase of the seasonal workers scheme as it moves forward from the pilot phase into something that works really well for our members and for the workers.”
Mr Michie said one of the union’s biggest concerns was the high visa cost of the scheme relative to the previous scheme which affected the morale of the people picking the fruit and the bottom line of the businesses growing it.
He added: “NFUS wants this red tape and high cost to be looked at as the Home Office learns lessons from this pilot scheme.”