THERE WILL be up to 30,000 UK visas available for next year’s fruit and veg pickers, the UK government has announced.

However, this still falls short of the 70,000 or so migrant workers that the industry employed under European Union freedom of movement.

The announcement extends the Seasonal Workers Pilot, originally launched in 2019, and expands it from 10,000 to 30,000 visas available for those wanting to come and work on UK farms for a period of up to six months.

With an eye on that 70,000 figure, the UK government has also announced that it will build on this year’s 'Pick for Britain' campaign and actively promote the recruitment and retention of domestic seasonal workers in 2021.

Defra has also flagged up a review into automation in horticulture, which will begin in early 2021, and report on ways to replace human pickers with machines, and help reduce the need for migrant seasonal labour.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “The measures announced today will provide vital labour, both domestic and from abroad, to our farmers and growers to help gather the 2021 harvest to feed the nation. Our review into automation will pave the way for a pioneering and efficient future for our fruit and vegetable growers.”

NFU Scotland president, Andrew McCornick said: “The significant upscale of the Seasonal Worker Scheme from 10,000 to 30,000 permits has been hard won. Following close and supportive dialogue with government and MPs, NFUS welcomes this increase on the understanding that the EU Settlement Scheme will allow workers who have undertaken work on Scottish horticulture farms prior to 2021 to return. And following the major, industry-led effort to recruit domestic workers during the 2020 pandemic, growers will continue to utilise all tools to encourage as much recruitment from within the UK as possible in 2021.

“We look forward to working with government to establish the terms and operation of the scheme in terms of cost for employers and which operators will be licensed to operate.“

Scotland's Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing commented: “Without sufficient access to labour, Scotland’s agricultural sector risks losing substantial income earning with the potential for severe impacts on the rural economy and rural communities.

“The UK Government’s future migration proposals do not meet Scotland’s needs. A scheme which seeks to recruit 30,000 workers for the whole of the UK is not enough to meet the number of current vacancies in the UK horticulture sector. We raised concerns that Scotland’s last allocation of these workers was not nearly enough. We welcome further detail on Scotland’s allocation at this late stage.

“A temporary programme proposed by the UK Government prohibits longer-term settlement of people working in key sectors," added Mr Ewing. "Scotland needs a tailored migration policy to meet the needs of employers and communities. Last minute extensions of a pilot scheme is no substitute for a comprehensive migration plan.”