Home Office rules out new SAWS scheme for 2017 amid Brexit-led worker shortage concerns

Immigration minister Robert Goodwill has ruled out a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) for 2017, and said it would take 5-6 months to set up a scheme to fill gaps left by workers leaving the UK because of Brexit.

Immigration minister Robert Goodwill
Immigration minister Robert Goodwill

Goodwill told the EFRA committee on labour constraints that "the statistics do not bear our" concerns that eastern European immigrant workers are not coming to the UK any more since Brexit in June 2016.

He said Bulgarian and Romanian worker numbers in the UK rose from 204,000 to 286,000 between the end of 2015 and the end of 2016. And overall net migration from the EU8 accession states was up from 972,000 to 1.013m in the year to September 2016.

Committee chairman Neil Parish suggested the Government was being "complacent" about introducing an alternative SAWS scheme after the committee heard from those such as the HTA and Cobrey Farms that labour was getting more difficult to find. He cited the NFU’s figures of 80,000 workers required for 2018 and 95,000 by 2021.

Goodwill said there was "not sufficient evidence" that a SAWS scheme was needed for 2017 and said there was still two years of freedom of movement before final Brexit.

He said the weakness of sterling could be an issue for incoming workers but "it is up to the industry to respond in the way it pays wages".

Defra farming minister George Eustice said farmers are concerned about the relative unattractiveness of being paid in sterling to foreign workers, but said UK wages remain attractive overall in Europe.

Goodwill said there would be a consultation with industry about labour demands and that he did not want any "knife edges" in labour supply.

The NFU has called for a new SAWS scheme ahead of final Brexit. But Goodwill said: "It would be a mistake to speculate [about] a specific immigration structure ahead of negotiations."

HTA horticulture director Raoul Curtis-Machin said: "To maintain and improve our production base, we need government not only to create a new permit scheme but also to re-assure existing migrant workers that they have right of residency and that they are free to travel between the UK and their home countries."


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