In a column for Fresh Produce Journal, NFU horticulture board chair Ali Capper outlines why the government must increase access to overseas workers.
With Brexit fast approaching, the NFU is working round the clock to ensure we have identified all the risks there might be for growers and make sure these are managed as effectively as possible.
Of course, one of the main issues at the forefront of all our minds continues to be labour availability. For years now, this has been a priority for the NFU horticulture team and Defra Secretary Michael Gove has publicly recognised the strong campaign we have run raising awareness of these critical issues. However, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit still hangs over us. There are many unknowns but one thing we are certain of is that the doors will not shut to the UK after March 29.
In January, the government published its immigration plans in the event of a no-deal which means EU citizens arriving after Brexit will only be able to work for longer than three months if they apply for, and are granted, ‘temporary leave to remain’. There remains some outstanding questions on how this process will be administered and what fee workers may have to pay, and we are concerned that it will be yet another reason for EU nationals that are looking for seasonal work to choose another EU country, rather than come to the UK.
We are pressing the government to increase the period EU citizens can work before applying for a right to remain from three months to between six and 12 months, which much better reflects the needs of our sector. And we want the fee to be removed, just as it has been for EU citizens wanting to apply for settled status.
Currently, I am trying to make plans for our apple and hop harvest in September and October and the ongoing uncertainty is making this preparation increasingly challenging. Labour availability has been limited for a number of years now and for the workers we are trying to recruit, this huge question mark over the status of the UK will leave them with serious questions.
I want to make the case that the UK is still open for business and I am delighted that Defra will be producing clear communication around no-deal planning, which can be used with your seasonal staff explaining the current situation.
It goes without saying that March will be a critical month for the whole of the food and farming industry as the Brexit process reaches crunch time. I believe that as an industry we have impressed on the Government the unique needs of our sector and I hope that they will recognise this in their no-deal planning and their plans for a future immigration system.