Shelves 'packed with foreign produce' unless fruit picker visas are secured

Urgent action is required to ensure foreign fruit and vegetable pickers can continue to work in the UK post Brexit, ministers have been warned.

The farming industry and MPs have called for clarity on the rules that will apply to seasonal migrants after March 2019.

An estimated 80,000 seasonal pickers came to work in the UK last year, and the industry expects that figure to rise to around 95,000 by 2019.

SNP MP Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) warned in a Commons debate that if the situation was not resolved, produce would not be picked.

Pickers gather grapes at a vineyard (John Giles/PA)
Pickers gather grapes at a vineyard (John Giles/PA)

He said: "All of this is now at risk because of the cloth-eared approach of this Government to this issue of agricultural workers and its self defeating and damaging obsession with seeing absolutely everything through the lens of immigration.

"For this Government immigration is just something that has got to be stopped, it's got to be cut and what we're seeing now in agricultural businesses is this has become collateral."

He later added: "We could end in the situation where although we have one of the best products in the world, our shelves will be packed with foreign produce."

Mr Wishart concluded with three words to the Government frontbench, "get it sorted".

Tory MP Kirstene Hair, who secured the debate, called for the introduction of a seasonal visa scheme as a matter of urgency, warning ministers that the industry could spiral into "turmoil".

She said: "With regards to a solution there is only one choice in my view, the introduction of a system that permits individuals from European and non-European states to come to the UK specifically to carry out this seasonal work."

She added: "Ahead of harvest 2018, it is imperative that we act now, our farmers cannot plan."

Ms Hair went on to explain that the foreign workforce was needed as there was not the workforce "willing to undertake the lifestyle necessary for harvesting crops" in the UK.

She said: "This is not labour that can be undertaken by the existing British workforce, we do not have the numbers in the rural areas which require them, nor do we have those who are willing to undertake the lifestyle necessary for harvesting crops.

"Early starts and intensive work is the norm and, as I said before, this is skilled work."

She added: "The job is simply unattractive to the domestic workforce."

Ms Hair concluded by telling the frontbench that the farming community needed "clarity urgently".

Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes, responding to the debate, said: "I do of course appreciate that there is a difference between established workers and seasonal workers of the kind who predominate in agriculture, but it is important we recognise that there are many EU citizens in the UK and more than there were at the time of the referendum."

She said since the last seasonal agricultural workers scheme was abolished in 2013, the agricultural sector had been working hard to recruit the labour it requires.

Ms Nokes said the Government recognised the concerns made about labour shortages, and went on to say: "We do of course keep the situation under constant review, referring specifically to a seasonal agricultural workers scheme."

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