More disappointing news for farmers – the Government appears to be giving only token support – Owl
“..despite ministers pledging from early March that they would help the farming industry with a recruitment campaign, a Freedom of Information request shows that no money was spent on the drive in April and just £16,500 up to 18 May, the latest date for which figures are available.”
Exclusive: FOI request by the Lib Dems reveals low spending on recruitment drive for UK fruit and veg pickers
The campaign to recruit tens of thousands of fruit pickers to help the farming sector through the pandemic has spent just £16,500 of government money, it has emerged.
The Government’s “Pick for Britain” scheme was launched in April to meet a shortage of European agricultural workers who are unable to travel to the UK because of coronavirus.
Yet despite ministers pledging from early March that they would help the farming industry with a recruitment campaign, a Freedom of Information request shows that no money was spent on the drive in April and just £16,500 up to 18 May, the latest date for which figures are available.
The i newsletter cut through the noise
The Liberal Democrats, who submitted the FOI request, claimed the low spending showed that Boris Johnson was not doing enough to prevent food shortages in the wake of the pandemic.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ rural affairs spokesman and former leader, said the spending was a “pittance” given the importance the Government had placed on the Pick for Britain campaign.
Every year around 80,000 seasonal workers, many of them from Eastern Europe, pick fruit and vegetables on British farms, but the National Farmers Union has said the sector would still need around half that amount to plug the shortfall in the workforce due to Covid-19.
The revelation follows a warning by the British Retail Consortium last week that there could be an “even bigger challenge” to UK food supplies than coronavirus if there is a no-deal Brexit.
In March, ministers said they would need to recruit UK fruit and vegetable pickers and in April, the “Pick for Britain” website was launched. But it was only on 19 May that the campaign took centre stage at the daily Downing Street press briefing on coronavirus, highlighted by Environment Secretary George Eustice.
No deal concerns
The FOI response from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says: “There has been no amount spent by Defra on any aspect of Pick for Britain campaign from its inception up to 30 April 2020.
“There has been £16,500 spent by Defra on the Pick for Britain campaign from 1 May 2020 to 18 May 2020. Please note that Defra does not run the Pick for Britain website, so incurs no cost here. The budget for future spending by Defra for this campaign is £83,500.”
Mr Farron said: “Farming communities up and down the country are rightly concerned about the impact of a no-deal Brexit. A bad deal for farmers is a bad deal for consumers.
“The pittance Conservative ministers have spent so far to get people into vital jobs across the agricultural sector shows their cavalier attitude to the enormous risk of food shortages in the UK.
“It is time to come good on promises. Ministers must help secure the essential labour that farmers rely on to bring in the harvest, whether that’s by further investing in local recruitment or doing more to maintain the labour we have relied on from overseas.”
Mr Farron said the Prime Minister should remove his “arbitrary deadline” for Brexit and extend the transition period to help the country adjust following the pandemic.
Last week Andrew Opie, chairman of the British Retail Consortium, told the Environment Food and Rural Affairs select committee: “If we get a disorderly Brexit, we potentially face a bigger challenge than the food supply chain faced in Covid.
“Then we do not have the food in the country to move around, which is the bit we did really well in this crisis.
“We need to focus on having a proper Brexit decision made in advance of January. Otherwise, we have potentially a bigger problem than we had in Covid.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “Seasonal workers are essential to help farmers and growers bring in the harvest every year, which is why we’ve been working hard to ensure farmers and growers have the support they need during this time – connecting potential workers with job opportunities via the Pick for Britain hub we developed with industry.
“There has been strong interest in these opportunities across the country and a number of growers have already signed up the new recruits they needed for their farms. We encourage people to keep checking the Pick for Britain website for new vacancies as the season progresses.”
This story has been updated with response from Defra.