The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of seasonal workers to the UK, especially in the agricultural sector. The UK is currently reliant on over 70,000 seasonal workers, the vast majority of whom come from the EU under freedom of movement. A smaller number come from outside the EU, although this number has increased following Brexit, with a few EU citizens coming to work in the UK. However, once the transformation period ends on 1st January, free movement will come to an end and anyone wishing to come to the UK will have to do so in accordance with the new points-based immigration system which comes into force on 1st January 2021.
This system contains no special route of entry for what the Government classifies as "lower-skilled" workers. Thanks to extensive lobbying by the Countryside Alliance and other stakeholders, the Government has at last recognised the importance of seasonal workers to the sector and rural economy. Reversing previous Government policy, they have agreed to expand the pilot seasonal workers scheme that has been running for 2019 and 2020 for non-EU citizens. However, this scheme, which after the end of freedom of movement will apply to all workers from outside the UK, is currently only for the 10,000 seasonal workers across the entire agricultural sector, and to date the Government has given no indication as to how this scheme is to be expanded both in terms of numbers and the sectors to which it will apply. Industry needs clarity now, with just under 3 months until the current arrangements cease.
We support the Government's ambition to reduce reliance on seasonal workers from abroad, by modernising UK agriculture and raising wages, but this will require time and investment. In the meantime, an expanded seasonal workers scheme should be designed which is responsive to any changes in demand for labour. The needs of industry should determine numbers, and access to the scheme needs to be available across all agricultural sectors including game farms and forestry. To cut off, or severely restrict, access to labour before the wider industry changes the Government wishes to see, would be hugely damaging to the economy.
This is a matter of urgent concern and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee are conducting an inquiry: Labour in the Food Supply Chain. The Countryside Alliance has submitted evidence to the Committee. Our submission can be read here.