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Government seems so ‘hamstrung by Brexit immigration dogma’ it risks failing £1.2bn soft fruit industry, growers claim

Strawberry growers accuse ministers of apparent reluctance to let in foreign seasonal workers, while Germany, Portugal, and Spain profit by giving temporary farm labour permits to non-EU nationals

Adam Lusher
Tuesday 19 June 2018 18:05 BST
The UK's soft fruit industry is currently facing a labour shortage which growers fear may be exacerbated by government reluctance to let in foreign fruit pickers
The UK's soft fruit industry is currently facing a labour shortage which growers fear may be exacerbated by government reluctance to let in foreign fruit pickers (PA Archive/PA Images)

The Government seems so “hamstrung by dogma” around Brexit and immigration that it is failing to act decisively to ensure Britain’s fruit farmers will get the supply of foreign workers they need to survive, it has been suggested.

Nick Marston, chairman of producers’ organisation British Summer Fruits (BSF), said the resulting uncertainty had left his members “extremely worried” about Brexit.

Mr Marston, representing producers who supply 97 per cent of the homegrown strawberries and other berries sold in UK supermarkets, said the government had to act now on the issue of foreign seasonal fruit pickers because British farmers were already in the grip of a labour shortage.

A survey of the BSF membership, published on Tuesday, found that nearly all of them (96 per cent) have had trouble finding enough seasonal workers and 63 per cent expected the labour shortage to be even worse next year.

In a possible irony given Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Mr Marston told The Independent that the labour shortage had been created mainly by the economic success of east European nations that joined the union in 2007.

Romania, for example, is now experiencing 25-year record lows in unemployment, meaning far fewer people needed to seek seasonal fruit picking work in Britain.

Mr Marston said other countries like Germany and Spain had adapted by tapping into new labour markets through the use of seasonal work permit schemes for non-EU nationals.

But, he said, Theresa May’s government had yet to recognise the need for permits to attract temporary farm labourers from outside Europe, and was proving slow in publishing details of a post-Brexit seasonal agricultural workers scheme for EU nationals.

“I wonder whether at the moment they are not almost hamstrung by the dogma of Brexit and the need to reduce net migration,” Mr Marston said. “This isn’t about net migration. It is about people who would come here, work, and then go home on a strictly controlled permit scheme.

“But at the moment, perhaps, it has almost been conflated with net migration in the minds of Number 10.

“Quite frankly, at the moment, our growers are extremely worried about Brexit, and all their concerns revolve around the availability of labour.”

By comparison, he said, “Several European countries which have big horticultural industries, including Germany, Spain, Portugal and Poland, have already introduced a seasonal agricultural workers permit scheme for non-EU nationals.

“For instance the Germans this year have 60,000 permits for Ukrainians to go and work in Germany.

“But there doesn’t seem to be any immediate recognition [from the UK government] of a need for a scheme for non-EU nationals of the kind that competing nations already have in place.”

“What we are pressing the government for,” he added, “Is a level playing field with competing berry growers across Europe.”

Ever since the Brexit vote, there have been repeatedly-voiced fears that less fruit would be grown or that it would left to rot in the fields because there was no-one to pick it.

In February environment secretary Michael Gove agreed there was a “compelling” case for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme (Saws) for EU nationals, and said the government would announce details “shortly”.

Mr Marston, however, told The Independent: “The government has said details of a permit scheme would be announced shortly – but that was in February, and no permit scheme has yet been announced.

“I am confident the government will do it. What is important, though, is that we understand the details of that scheme and when it will be in place.

“At the moment, faced with uncertainty – and until a scheme is announced, all we have is uncertainty - growers are starting to reduce their investment, reduce their future plans for production and, in increasing numbers, looking to farm overseas where they know they will get labour.”

BSF’s membership survey found that uncertainty about where they would get their seasonal workforce meant that 78 per cent of producers were planning to grow less fruit, and 14 per cent were looking at shifting some or all of their operation outside the UK.

Mr Marston said this was “a great shame, because the UK berry industry is a big success story for British agriculture. It has grown by between 8 and 15 per cent per annum in the last 15 years, from £380m a year in retail value to over £1.2bn.”

Mr Marston explained that it was a myth that there was a ready pool of British unemployed who could fill the gap left by the lack of foreign seasonal workers.

He said: “We actually have low levels of unemployment nationally, and even lower levels in rural areas where the farms are located.

“For example, in 2017 the National Farmers Union did a survey. The berry growers in Herefordshire require about 3,900 people every spring, but there were only about 800 jobseekers listed for the whole Herefordshire labour market.”

In its addition to its membership survey, the BFS commissioned a YouGov poll of British consumers. The BSF said the results showed that some UK shoppers were “blind” to the threat of price rises and shortages posed by Brexit.

The poll found that 19 per cent, nearly one in five UK consumers thought Brexit would somehow increase the availability of British strawberries.

“There is,” Mr Marston said, “Absolutely no chance of Brexit increasing the availability of British strawberries.

“Unless steps are put in place to provide growers with access to seasonal labour, the availability will reduce substantially.”

A government spokesman said: "We are working hard to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU.

“We have been clear that up until December 2020, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors will be free to recruit EU citizens to fill vacancies and those arriving to work will be able to stay in the UK afterwards.

“We are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our EU negotiations, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry which is a key part of our economic success.”

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