UK workers need to be inspired to work in the farming industry, according to the president of the NFU, as she revealed £16m of fruit and vegetables were ‘wasted’ last year.
Minette Batters, a Wiltshire farmer, said the UK Government talking of jobs such as picking fruit as ‘low-skilled’ does not value the importance of the roles enough.
Her comments came after Home Secretary Suella Braverman, speaking at a conference of conservative activists on Monday, said Britons should be trained to drive trucks and gather crops rather than filling the vacancies with foreign workers.
She told the National Conservatism Conference: “We need to get overall immigration numbers down. And we mustn’t forget how to do things ourselves.
“There is no good reason why we can’t train up enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers.
“Brexit enables us to build a high-skilled, high-wage economy that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour.”
But speaking on Sky News on May 16, Ms Batters, pictured, said the current situation was ‘challenging’ and the value of jobs such as fruit picking needed to be recognised.
“This has been a huge huge issue. When we were members of the EU we were the preferred country to work in out of all member states,” she said.
“People wanted to come here, most of all because it’s highly regulated, it’s well paid and of course, that freedom of movement has ended so now (we have) these visa schemes, where (we are) bringing people in from very challenging parts of the world in some cases.
“There’s a lot of cost attached to coming here and last year, as an example, with the crops – fruit, vegetables and flowers – we wasted £60m worth of high-quality fruit and vegetables.
“So it’s really important that we have a seasonal workers scheme that runs for nine months of the year – the current runs for six months – we know whos coming here, we know when they go back again, but we can be under no illusions that this is challenging and this is costly.
“And government continues to talk about low-skilled work. Picking our fruit and vegetables is highly skilled and we need to, I think, recognise the value of these jobs if we’re going to inspire a UK workforce to want to do them.
“So we need to really focus, I think, on the skillsets that we need in this country.”
Under current rules, butchers are eligible to come to the UK as skilled workers, while fruit pickers are eligible for seasonal worker visas.
HGV drivers were eligible for special visas last year, but have since been dropped from the list.
Grant Shapps, energy secretary, said on Sunday that Brexit had brought the ability for more government control of visas.
“We have a migration advisory committee that says there’s a shortage in this area or that area,” he told Sky News.
“One of the advantages now, with Brexit, is we have control over our own rules and our policy.”