Feeding the nation: labour constraints Contents

3A new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS)?

13.Previous demand for agricultural workers was partially met by migrants entering the UK under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS). Such schemes have run in various guises since 1945 and allowed non-UK workers to work in UK agriculture on a temporary basis. People entering the UK under a SAWS visa could only work in agriculture, usually with a specified employer.

14.The final iteration of the SAWS scheme closed in 2013. At that time the scheme was open to applicants from Romania and Bulgaria (the EU2) and a quota was set limiting access to 21,250 participants. With the lifting of the transitional controls regulating the movement of labour from Romania and Bulgaria the then Government was confident that the SAWS scheme could be disbanded as “unskilled and low skilled labour needs should be satisfied from the expanded EEA labour market”. In addition, it was expected that the agricultural sector “should be able to attract and retain UK workers”.28

15.Our witnesses disputed that assertion, noting that without a designated scheme restricting workers to jobs in agriculture, the sector was losing out in competition for workers to more ‘desirable’ sectors such as construction and hospitality.29 It was also noted that there was something of a natural progression of migrant workers, and the longer migration was possible into the UK the less willing migrants were to perform harder, manual work (and vice versa).30

16.These difficulties in recruiting labour from Romania and Bulgaria led our witnesses to call for a “new SAWS” allowing the immigration of non-EU labour into the UK since sources from the EU would fail, and were failing, to meet the agricultural sector’s needs.31 Such a scheme would have been necessary even without the UK’s decision to leave the EU but that decision had made the need for such a scheme even greater.32 Witnesses suggested that this “new SAWS” would need to be established immediately post-Brexit, to avoid any “cliff edges” of labour shortages. Some went further and called for a pilot scheme to be instituted immediately, partly to meet urgent labour needs and partly to “demonstrate, working with the Home Office, that we [the industry] can manage that scheme as we have in the past”.33

17.As noted above, the Government told us that it was not convinced that there were any labour shortages in the agriculture sector and therefore disputed claims that the closure of the old SAWS scheme had had any effect on the wider labour supply. Both Ministers were confident that in the short-term the continued free movement of labour between EU countries meant that sufficient labour could be found.34 They refused to specify whether a new SAWS scheme would be introduced in the longer-term. Instead, they promised to avoid any “cliff edges” in labour supply and to ensure a smooth transition to a new, albeit unspecified, policy.35 Furthermore, the Ministers promised to keep the need for a new SAWS scheme—to run in addition to free movement of labour within the EU, and applying to a non-EU-country—“under review”.36

18.We remained concerned that the Government could not act quickly enough to establish a new scheme, and new sources of labour, if labour shortages became acute. We pressed the Government on how long it would take to establish a new SAWS scheme, if required. Given that the previous SAWS scheme had closed only recently and as a result the Home Office had institutional experience of running it, Robert Goodwill told us that it would take “about five or six months” to establish such a scheme if the need were identified.37 He went on the stress that the continued free movement of labour meant that a SAWS scheme would not need to be introduced “as long as we remain members of the European Union—so for the next two years”.38

19.We note the Government’s assertions that a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is unnecessary as long as the UK retains free movement of labour among the European Union. We further note the Home Office’s assertion that a new SAWS could be introduced very quickly—in five or six months—once the need for such a scheme had been identified. It is vital that the labour supply available to the agriculture and horticulture sectors does not suddenly dry up as a result of any uncertainty caused by the new immigration arrangements instituted following the UK’s exit from the EU. We note the promise made to us that this will not happen, and we are confident that our successor Committee will wish to scrutinise this area of Government activity closely throughout the next Parliament.

29 Q91

30 Q12 and Q89

31 Q195

32 See for example: Q96

33 Q28

34 Q231

35 Q219

36 Q215

37 Q216

38 Q215

25 April 2017