UK FRUIT and veg growers will be able to recruit some non-EU migrants as seasonal workers after Brexit, under a 'pilot scheme' just announced by the Home Office – but industry reaction has been muted due to the low numbers involved.

The proposed visa scheme, operating between Spring 2019 and December 2020, after the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, would bring in 2500 non-EU migrants as seasonal workers, on visas that will last six months.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: "This pilot will ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times of the year. I am committed to having an immigration system that reduces migration to sustainable levels, supports all industry and ensures we welcome those who benefit Britain."

Environment secretary Michael Gove said: "We have listened to the powerful arguments from farmers about the need for seasonal labour to keep the horticulture industry productive and profitable. From lettuce in East Anglia to strawberries in Scotland, we want to make sure that farmers can continue to grow, sell and export more great British food.

"This two year pilot will ease the workforce pressures faced by farmers during busy times of the year. We will review the pilot’s results as we look at how best to support the longer-term needs of industry outside the EU."

Chairman of British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston, welcomed the scheme, but said that its 2500 cap made it insufficient to fix the current labour shortage: “We welcome the recognition by government of the need for non-EU workers in horticulture in the UK and for the introduction of a SAWS scheme, albeit a ‘pilot’.

“However, UK horticulture employs 60,000 seasonal staff from the EU annually, with berries alone accounting for 29,000 workers. Our farms are reporting staff shortages of 10-20% already, and to have any effect in terms of supporting our successful industry, around 10,000 are needed now – not 2500 – this number will have little effect on the current shortages UK farms are facing as we speak.

“Whilst we appreciate the need for government to manage the scheme, we would ask for further clarification on how they see this moving to a sustainable longer-term solution that can provide for the shortage in labour we are already dealing with. We also urge a discussion on who is licensed to recruit staff under the scheme, and the number of proposed operators, as we would be concerned that too few a number of operators may have the potential for undesirable effects in a number of areas as well.”

NFU Scotland’s horticultural chairman, James Porter, said: “Problems in securing sufficient numbers of seasonal labour have been a major factor in high value crops of Scottish soft fruit and vegetables going unpicked in the past two seasons.

“This announcement is a step in the right direction and, in our view, has the potential to go much further," he said. "The principle that concerns over a seasonal workforce must be addressed has been accepted – but the figure of 2500 permits, given that it is on a UK-wide basis, is significantly short of what is likely to be needed to make a difference to the labour needs of the sector.

“The devil is likely to be in the detail but, providing the pilot scheme can prove itself to be flexible and responsive to the likely numbers of seasonal workers required, then it could be a positive move in addressing the challenge of finding seasonal staff for Scottish farms in 2019 and beyond," he added.

NFUS will be writing to the Home Office, Defra and the Scotland Office this week to seek further information on the scheme and when it will be put into operation. Feedback from our horticultural members will also be vital if we are to effectively express to government how a future, permanent scheme should operate after this trial period."