Immigration: Robert Jenrick sorry for problems with seasonal worker visas

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Daffodil pickers work in a field near Penzance in CornwallImage source, Getty Images

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick has apologised for any shortages of foreign workers caused by the operation of the seasonal farm worker visa scheme.

Former Environment Secretary George Eustice warned "serious problems" with the Home Office's running of the scheme could prove "catastrophic" for daffodil growers in his Cornish constituency.

Producers needed to be allowed to apply for new visas urgently, he told MPs.

Responding in the Commons, Mr Jenrick promised to fix any problems.

Asking an urgent question, Mr Eustice - a leading Brexiteer - claimed the visa scheme had been closed early this year and called on ministers to "provisionally allocate" the number of seasonal worker visas for next year to give farmers certainty about their workforce.

The MP for Camborne and Redruth said local daffodil growers needed extra workers in their fields before the end of January and were facing a shortfall of "between 30% and 40%".

"Scheme operators need to be issued with an allocation of certificates of sponsorship now so that they can recruit people and secure the visas necessary for workers to start in January," he said.

He said the Home Office had stopped allowing certificates of sponsorship obtained this year to be used as the basis for workers to arrive the following January.

'Nothing has changed'

"And indeed, I understand that they have closed the ability to issue certificates of sponsorship from the end of November, so that no one at the moment is able to issue them.

"So will he take immediate action to direct his officials to put a provisional allocation of certificates of sponsorship onto the Home Office's Visa sponsorship management system?"

Mr Jenrick said he had been assured by his officials that "nothing has changed from the way the scheme worked last year".

[But] "if that is incorrect, then I will change that today and ensure that the scheme is unfrozen so that these important employers... can make use of the remaining certificates before the end of the year.

"And if it is correct that the Home Office has frozen these certificates, then I apologise to businesses who have been inadvertently inconvenienced by this."

Addressing industries that require workers early in the year, he added: "We do need to take steps to ensure that those businesses can make sensible recruitment decisions in good time and not leave these decisions, as has happened too often, to the 11th hour.

"I will work intensively with my officials to ensure that we get that decision out as quickly as possible."

In the meantime, Mr Jenrick suggested, new workers could enter the UK under the 1.400 unfilled places in this year's scheme and stay into 2023.

In October, the government expanded the seasonal worker scheme to include poultry workers, to ensure there would be enough turkeys in the supermarket for Christmas.

Mr Jenrick told the Commons he was open to creating multi-year worker visas in future to give farmers more certainty their produce would not go to waste.

SNP spokesperson Deidre Brock urged ministers to consider a 24-month visa.