Rural MPs lobby for replacement seasonal workers scheme to help safeguard growers

A debate in Parliament has seen MPs from rural constituencies stressing the need for a successor to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), which ends next year.

Conservative MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey Gordon Henderson said the scheme "has provided a pool of labour for the horticulture industry for 60 years and without those workers farmers simply would not be able to survive". He also urged Defra to press the Home Office to "deal with the problem as a matter of urgency" during the debate last month.

Henderson rejected the idea of compelling those on benefits to work on farms, saying "forced labour is not productive labour". He instead called on the Government to consider a system like that in use in Spain, where "fixed discontinuous contracts" allow workers to work when work is available and claim benefits when it is not.

West Worcestershire Tory MP Harriett Baldwin responded that changes to the benefit system from 2014 would make such short-term employment more attractive anyway.

The Government is currently looking into "a seasonal agricultural workers scheme for British workers", she added.

Angus SNP MP Mike Weir said a scheme to place the long-term unemployed with his constituency's growers "was not particularly successful". He added: "Migrant labour underpins full-time jobs for local people."

Defra minister Jim Paice emphasised: "No decision has been taken yet on whether a successor scheme to SAWS will be put in place."

But he added that the Home Office, which manages SAWS, has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to advise on the case for a future scheme.

Employer's view on loss of seasonal workers scheme

"Losing the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme would be a big blow. We use it a lot - at least 70 per cent of our workforce comes through the scheme. From the Government's point of view, it allows controlled immigration, and from the employer's point of view, they can't go off and work elsewhere. Without that, people will come and go, but what you want is continuity of labour through the season. I can't see how you would get local people to do the work - it would take a change of policy to entice them."

Ross Mitchell, co-owner, Castleton Farm (soft-fruit grower), Kincardineshire.

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