Fife Council voted 52-10 in favour of writing to Home Secretary Priti Patel asking her to expand the scheme from 30,000 visas a year to 60,000 next year in response to an ongoing worker shortage on fruit and vegetable farms across the region.
With planting decisions being made now for next season, Fife’s formal request to urgently review the system mirrors that of the National Farmers Union Scotland, which has urged the Home Office to put “long-term solutions” in place to ensure supply chains can overcome pressures being faced in the sector.
In moving the motion calling on the Home Office to think again, Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Brett highlighted the plight of East of Scotland Growers, a farmer-owned co-operative based in Cupar, which provides broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables over a wide radius.
“This year’s harvest was late due to April frost and May rain and this resulted in a bumper crop in August,” he explained.
“Broccoli and cauliflower are both perishable crops and they could not keep up with harvesting them.
“There was a shortage of labour to harvest the crop and no ability to call on additional resources to help, and also the quality, skills and attitude of the workforce was an issue too.
“The result was that they couldn’t get the crop to freezer units in time and around 2,500,000 heads of broccoli and 1,500,000 heads of cauliflower were lost - much of it ploughed back into the fields.
“The concern is that this is an ongoing problem, not just for this year, and it’s one that farmers have predicted and one that needs to be resolved.”
Mr Brett added that staff shortages are already affecting preparatory work for next season, which could in turn have knock-on implications for production.
“The NFU would like to see this increase up to 60,000 visas as this will help the farming sector access the workforce required, provide confidence that the issues faced accessing labour this year will not be repeated and that this will help to deliver a thriving farming sector that is important to the country,” he continued.
“Unless the UK government acts soon, farmers may be forced to reduce their area of production next year due to a lack of staff and the high cost,
“Farmers have worked hard to employ as many UK, EU and other European workers as possible but, despite their best efforts, many remain significantly understaffed and have faced shortages for the entire year.”
A Conservative amendment to Mr Brett’s motion was tabled, asking the council’s co-leaders to write to Mairi Gougeon MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, to ask what steps are being taken to reduce the “precarious dependence” of Scottish agriculture on an “unsustainable and unreliable source of cheap labour” from outside the UK.
However, that was ultimately voted down by the majority.