Home Office hits farm students

A major shortage of young workers to help with harvest and picking horticultural crops will hit the industry hard and have serious implications for home-grown food supplies, the National Farmers' Union has warned.

A major shortage of young workers to help with harvest and picking horticultural crops will hit the industry hard and have serious implications for home-grown food supplies, the National Farmers' Union has warned.

A leading Norfolk farmer, Richard Hirst, has criticised the Home Office plans to scrap the SAWS (Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme), which provides opportunities for young foreign students to work on the

land.

Mr Hirst, chairman of the National Farmers' Union's horticulture board, said: "The problem is that there is just a complete lack of understanding by the Home Office about the SAWS.


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"It is making decisions about SAWS and what it is, what it has done, and what its aims are. It

has been mixed up in the whole

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illegal immigrant and migration debate issue when it is nothing to do with it."

He said that from 2008, all the SAWS applications can only come from Bulgaria and Romania. "It is 16,500 permits, which isn't even enough at the moment anyway. The SAWS operators don't think that they will get enough suitable student applications from Romania and Bulgaria," said Mr Hirst, who farms at Ormesby, near Yarmouth.

SAWS has been running for

more than 40 years and it gives

foreign students, who are on agricultural and horticultural courses, an opportunity to work in this country for between three and six months.

"It is in the middle of their

university courses. The permit is

held by the SAWS operators, so

the student can't go and work anywhere else. The return rates have been about 98 or 99pc," said Mr

Hirst.

When the EU expanded to 27 members, the number of SAWS permits was reduced from about 25,000. "The scheme has been a great success for more than 40 years. It works," he said.

Mr Hirst said that the Defra minister, Lord (Jeff) Rooker, was a SAWS student in his student days.

"He is extremely supportive of the

whole concept of it and is doing what he can to lobby on the industry's behalf. But it is a Home Office

decision and they seem intent on

doing what they can to get rid of

it."

"Basically, I think that the government has been trying to find a way to get rid of it.

"It is political

issue rather than a practical issue, I think," said Mr Hirst, who is a former chairman of Norfolk NFU.

"We're trying very hard to fight for the scheme. One can always hope. However, they seem to be fairly

intent on getting rid of all these sector-based schemes.

"SAWS is the only one which has survived. All the others were abandoned at the start of this year.

"There have been enough problems about getting labour for this year, but next year there will not be enough students about.

"You get a lot of students coming back for two or three years on the

trot, which they're entitled to do, which suggests they're being

looked after very well. They get the rate as set by the Agricultural Wages Board.

"A lot are on piecework and some are earning £8, £9 or £10 if they're prepared to work for it and they can get to those sort of levels."

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