The UK Government needs to act to avoid visa delays for agricultural seasonal workers causing produce to rot in fields across Scotland, the chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee has said.
SNP MP Pete Wishart has written to the Home Office and the Foreign Office after the committee heard evidence earlier this week that a backlog of delayed visa applications means these workers may not reach Scottish farms in time for harvest season.
The committee heard from the operators of the UK Government’s pilot scheme for seasonal workers, Pro-Force and Concordia, who said recruitment of the 2,500 workers for the scheme was going well but there were problems with support from embassies and Home Office processing times.
The witnesses said that while the Home Office has pledged a three-week turnaround for visas, some were taking more than 30 days.
Concordia chief executive Stephanie Maurel said this had already resulted in them falling behind with orders, with farms not receiving workers on the dates expected.
Matthew Jarrett, Pro-Force director, warned that if these delays were not addressed, some workers would miss the growing season altogether.
The operators said this delay was partially down to workers’ difficulty in booking appointments at the UK visa offices abroad, with the UK visa office in Moldova open only two days a week.
Visa and administration costs were also said to be an issue, with the Moldovan office charging a total of 401 euro (£347) – 67 euro (£58) for the first appointment day, 90 euro (£78) for the second and 244 euro (£211) for the visa.
Operators were concerned this could be deterring some workers.
In the letter, Mr Wishart says: “It would be helpful to the Committee’s work if you could outline the support the Government is providing Pro-Force and Concordia, what steps are being taken to speed up the visa applications and whether any additional resources are being allocated to resolve this issue.”
Scottish farms employ up to 10,000 non-UK nationals in seasonal positions in the soft fruit and vegetable sectors each year.
Some growers have reported a 10-20% reduction in this workforce in recent years which has led to decreased production and rotting produce.
Mr Wishart said: “The Government’s pilot scheme was intended to alleviate labour shortages during peak production periods, but if these visa delays continue there is a risk that Scottish farmers will be left high and dry without any support during harvesting season.
“My committee was told there is a risk that workers simply won’t be on the ground in time – for example in my constituency upwards of 40 workers are needed from next week to pick strawberries and we were told in no uncertain terms that they will not be there in time.
“The Government needs to do everything it can to support the pilot scheme and ensure that Scottish farmers do not have to face rotting produce because of bureaucratic delays.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “It is incorrect to claim that there have been any delays to processing these visas.
“Since the launch of the Seasonal Worker Scheme, UKVI has decided all such applications within our customer service standards.”