There are “serious problems” with the administration of a scheme to bring seasonal farm workers to the UK from abroad, a Conservative former environment secretary has said.
George Eustice claimed that the visa scheme had been closed early this year, and called on ministers to “provisionally allocate” the number of seasonal worker visas for next year in order to give farmers certainty about their workforce.
The Tory MP told ministers about daffodil growers in his Camborne and Redruth constituency in Cornwall, who desperately need extra workers in the fields before the end of January as they are facing a gap of “between 30% and 40% of their staffing needs”.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons, he said: “There have been some serious problems with administration, and in particular, scheme operators need to be issued with an allocation of certificates of sponsorship now so that they can recruit people and secure the visas necessary for workers to start in January.
“Now, last year the Home Office allowed certificates of sponsorship in 2021 to be used as the basis for workers arriving in January 2022.
“This year, for reasons that have not been properly explained, Home Office officials have taken a decision not to allow that.
“And indeed, I understand that they have closed the ability to issue certificates of sponsorship from the end of November, so that no one at the moment is able to issue them.”
He added: “This is of critical importance to the daffodil industry that is in my constituency,” he said, adding: “At the moment they are going to have a gap of between 30% to 40% of their staffing needs, and that will be catastrophic for the industry by the end of January.
“So, will he take immediate action to direct his officials to put a provisional allocation of certificates of sponsorship onto the Home Office’s sponsorship management system?”
Home Office minister Robert Jenrick said he was assured this year’s seasonal visas for agricultural workers scheme was working as normal, but said if it had been frozen as Mr Eustice claimed then he will unfreeze it.
Addressing industries that require workers early in the year, he said: “We do need to take steps to ensure that those businesses can make sensible recruitment decisions in good time and not leave these decisions, as has happened too often, to the 11th hour.”
He added: “I will work intensively with my officials to ensure that we get that decision out as quickly as possible. In the interim, there are two options available to the industry.
“One is to make sure of workers who are already in the UK under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme… and secondly, that new individuals could enter the UK under the scheme using the under capacity within the 2022 placement and stay into 2023.”
He said: “I have been informed by my officials this morning that nothing has changed from the way the scheme worked last year.
“If that is incorrect, then I will change that today and ensure that the scheme is unfrozen so that these important employers… can make use of the remaining certificates before the end of the year.
“And if it is correct that the Home Office has frozen these certificates, then I apologise to businesses who have been inadvertently inconvenienced by this.”
In October, the Government expanded the seasonal worker scheme to include poultry workers, as a means of ensuring there would be enough turkeys in the supermarket for Christmas.
Mr Jenrick told the Commons he was open to creating multi-year worker visas in future to give farmers even more certainty that their produce would not go to waste.
He told the Commons: “I am sympathetic to the proposal that we create a scheme which is of multi-year duration enabling employers to plan over the longer term. Of course we have just been through one or two of the most exceptional years in which access to labour was heavily reduced as a result of Covid and travel restrictions.
“But now would seem to be a sensible time to explore whether or not we could create a longer term scheme which gives the certainty that the industry requires.”