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NFU Scotland’s horticulture working group chairman, James Porter, has appeared in front of an influential committee of MPs in Westminster to give evidence on the UK Government’s Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.
The Bill will repeal free movement after the UK leaves the EU and will set up the framework upon which the UK Government will create a new immigration policy after EU exit.
The committee has been charged with line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill, offering NFU Scotland a valuable opportunity to put on the parliamentary record its desire for any new immigration system after Brexit, to ensure workers from the EU and outside the EU can still come to the UK to take up posts in seasonal and permanent positions.
Since the vote to leave the EU became clear, NFU Scotland has consistently campaigned on the agricultural industry and entire food and drink supply chain’s reliance on non-UK workers.
Giving evidence to MPs on Thursday February 14, Mr Porter outlined that in the last year alone, many businesses have faced seasonal worker shortages of up to 15 per cent. Many soft fruit and field vegetable businesses across Scotland will employ hundreds of non-UK nationals to undertake seasonal work, with a large proportion returning year-on-year to undertake skilled husbandry, picking and packing work, as well as other roles.
He also set out that while shortages within the horticultural sector have been particularly stark, there are concerns right across the industry, with virtually no sector of Scottish agriculture not relying on non-UK workers for either primary production or further along the chain.
NFU Scotland currently has four key priorities:
In the immediate term, the UK Government must scale up the quota of non-EU nationals that are being allowed to take up seasonal posts for a trial period in 2019 and 2020 under the pilot seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Currently the scheme will allow 2,500 non-EU nationals to take up posts while freedom of movement is still in operation during the Brexit transition. However, based on projected shortages within the industry, it is understood that 10,000 non-EU nationals will be needed within the sector in 2019.
The UK Government must clarify the status of EU nationals in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Advice from the government suggests that in the event of no-deal, EU nationals will still be able to come to the UK for a three-month period, following which they will need to apply for an extension of up to three years. This is causing EU nationals considering roles in the UK, as well as Scottish employers, a huge amount of uncertainty. NFU Scotland is calling on the government extends the period to 12 months.
The UK Government is currently consulting on a new immigration system which will allow ‘low skilled’ workers to come to the UK to take up posts for up to one year, immediately followed by a 12-month ‘cooling off’ period. It is the NFU Scotland position that for members who employ workers, this proposal would be totally unworkable and a disincentive to employing staff and training them up, only for them to have to leave after the initial 12 months. Any new immigration system must allow individuals to take up posts and upskill in those posts, with a view to staying on for a longer period or permanently.
The UK Government is also consulting on whether a wage threshold of £30,000 should apply for any prospective migrants coming to take up posts in the UK. NFU Scotland has strongly refuted this proposal as an arbitrary threshold with little or no basis in the reality of employment patterns within Scottish agriculture or food and drink processing.
Addressing the Immigration Bill directly, he also set out the union’s opposition to ending free movement of people between the UK and EU and outlined that any new visa system must be based on labour market need rather than arbitrary targets based on supposed levels of skill or wage thresholds.
Mr Porter said: ‘The worker shortages within my own sector of horticulture have been well documented.
‘Within horticulture and across the whole agricultural industry we rely on non-UK nationals to undertake manually skilled work on both a seasonal and a permanent basis. The UK Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee has recognised that these gaps cannot be filled by workers from the UK.
‘NFU Scotland is very concerned about the obstructive position of the UK Government towards immigration and is lobbying hard to ensure any new system realistically and reasonably allows nationals from inside and outside the EU to take up posts where we have gaps in our labour-market. The system must be needs-driven; not ‘skills’-driven.
‘Within Scottish agriculture, we have an attractive offering to prospective employees for well-paid and well-regulated work, with opportunities to upskill and progress. While we are not shy of innovation, automating and investing where we can, in many cases there is simply no substitute for skilled work.
‘We were pleased to feed in strong evidence to this influential committee today and are committed to working closely with UK Government as it consults on a new system of immigration for the UK post-Brexit.’