A decision not to replace the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme at the end of 2013 will have a devastating effect on the UK horticultural sector, according to the NFU.

The scheme allows a quota of thousands of workers from Bulgaria and Romania to work in the UK for six months at a time. The current quota is 21,250 – about one-third of the seasonal workforce – and provides a vital source of labour for the harvest of the British fruit and vegetable crop. The SAWS scheme was due to come to an end in 2014 as restrictions on the two countries were scheduled to be lifted under accession plans for the eight new member states which joined the EU in 2004.

It had been expected that a replacement scheme would be provided, but in a speech to parliament yesterday (12 September) Home Office immigration minister Mark Harper ruled out such a move.

“Our view is that, at a time of unemployment in the UK and European Union, there should be sufficient workers from within those labour markets to meet the needs of the horticultural industry. The Agricultural Technologies Strategy will support innovation by agricultural businesses, which will also help to offset future effects.”

He added: “From 1 January 2014, when the transitional labour market controls on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are lifted, growers will have unrestricted access to these workers.

“Our migration policy is to allow only highly skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area, with an annual limit of 20,700 workers. Unskilled and low-skilled labour needs should be satisfied from within the expanded EEA labour market,” he said

But NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond said union members would be “rightly outraged at the minister’s decision”.

“It will have a devastating effect on the horticulture sector in the UK. This decision completely contradicts David Cameron’s belief that farmers are the backbone of Britain. It also contradicts the recommendations of the Migrant Advisory Committee that horticulture would suffer immeasurably without access to a reliable, flexible and consistent source of migrant seasonal workers,” Mr Raymond said.

“Make no mistake, this will cause a contraction in the British horticulture sector, one which is already suffering from falling self-sufficiency levels. It will put thousands of existing permanent UK jobs at risk, stifle growth, compromise food security and jeopardise the industry’s efforts to take on hundreds more UK unemployed for permanent work.

“SAWS has been a successful tool in helping our growers to ensure a supply of safe, healthy and affordable food for 60 years and this seriously raises the question of how we meet the challenges of a growing population and rising demand for British food.”