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Foreign Fruit Picker Numbers Could Go Up, Not Down As Home Office Hopes

A fruit picker in Buckinghamshire (alamy)

4 min read

Former environment secretary George Eustice has said that the number of overseas workers who come to the UK to pick fruit and vegetables is likely to go up in the next few years, despite the government's insistence they'll come down.

On Monday Home Secretary Suella Braverman said there's "no reason" why more domestic workers couldn't be recruited to plug labour shortages among fruit pickers, butchers and lorry drivers – all of which have struggled for staff since Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

The remarks were viewed as a criticism of some MPs in Rishi Sunak's Cabinet who are more willing to relax the UK's visa rules to help plug ongoing gaps in the workforce. 

Eustice, who was the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs between 2020-2022, told PoliticsHome he believes the Home Office struggles to understand that the agricultural sector could actually become more reliant on seasonal workers as time goes on.  

He explained that the majority foreign of workers who harvest fruit and vegetables are made up of people travelling to the UK specifically for seasonal work, as well EU citizens already living in the UK with settled status. The latter is expected to fall over the next few years if EU citizens return to their home countries, leading Eustice to predict that the government will have to increase the former to make up the shortfall.

The number of seasonal agricultural visas is currently at 45,000 after the government increased it by 15,000 for this year. Sunak on Tuesday said an additional 10,000 could be issued if the sector needed them. 

“The temporary seasonal scheme is going to need to grow to around 70,000 as settled status citizens drift away over the next few years. That was never really understood by the Home Office," he said. 

Eustice strongly supports relaxing immigration rules for industries with staff shortages, and said when at the Cabinet table he argued for a "needs based" approach to legal migration as "you need to allow people on visas to do the roles where you’ve got shortages".

“There are whole industries, particularly food, but also social care, which are critical to other parts of the economy and to wider society, and we should value the work the people in these sectors do even if they’re paid less than an accountant or a solicitor," he said.

Former Cabinet minister George Eustice

A fresh argument over immigration has errupted within the Conservative party ahead of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishing its latest net migration statistics. The ONS is expected to announce that net migration to the UK has hit an all-time high, which has prompted MPs on the right of the Tory party to call for stronger action to bring it down.

Eustice said he is on the side of Conservative MPs who believe the government should take a more pragmatic approach to legal migration, stressing that the issue of illegal small boats crossings, which Sunak is focussed on stopping, is totally seperate to overseas workers being granted visas to legally work in the UK. 

Eustice said that in particular it was "quite tricky" to recruit more British staff as butchers, a workforce that for decades has been reliant on foreign workers. The former environment secretary is especially familiar with the issue after working to address a Brexit-induced labour crisis in the meat industry in late 2021.

“The advent of free movement meant that eastern Europeans ended up taking on most of the roles, and it is quite difficult to turn back to a domestic workforce from scratch," he said.

"It’s a more recent phenomenon, but it’s still quite tricky to undo that, particularly in a tight labour market. If people have a choice to either drive an Amazon delivery van or work in an abattoir, most will choose the Amazon delivery van.”

The Prime Minister's spokesperson insisted on Monday that Braverman was speaking for the government when spotlighted recruitment of the domestic workforce, and pointed to earlier comments from Sunak that companies should "make long-term investments in the UK workforce, instead of relying on overseas labour".

They said that Sunak wanted net migration to come down, but didn't set out a specific target or a timetable for hitting it. 

Her remarks, however, attracted criticism from leaders of staff-short industries, who accused the home secretary of being disconnected from the realities of their sectors. 

Nick Allen, CEO at the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), said it would take "decades" for the meat industry to shift to no longer be reliant on foreign staff. Tom Bradshaw, deputy leader of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said her remarks about fruit pickers showed "she doesn’t have an understanding at all of the industry she is talking about".

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