The UK government on Tuesday promised to award 45,000 visas for seasonal workers in the agricultural sector next year despite calls from within the ruling Conservative party to cut immigration.
After a drop during the pandemic, net migration has been steadily on the rise and is expected to hit a record high this year, British media have reported. Official figures are expected this month.
Hardline Home Secretary Suella Braverman said at a conference in London on Monday that there was “no good reason” Britain cannot train its own lorry drivers and fruit pickers to drive down immigration.
But Downing Street defended the decision to grant the visas again.
The current rules “provide us the flexibility to flex the system depending on UK need,” a spokesman said Tuesday, adding that Britain has a “historically low” unemployment rate.
The announcement of the visas allocation comes alongside a new package of measures to support the farming industry.
British farmers have grappled with soaring costs with the pandemic’s disruption of supply chains and the war in Ukraine driving up the price of fertiliser, feed, fuel and energy.
Tougher immigration rules following Brexit, which ended free movement within EU member states, have made it harder to hire workers from the bloc, which British agriculture has traditionally relied upon.
The industry is also facing competition from imported products.
Ahead of a UK Farm to Fork Summit hosted by Downing Street on Tuesday, the government said it will give farmers greater protections in future trade deals and prioritise new export opportunities.
“British farming and British produce simply cannot be an afterthought. I know that is how some of you felt in the past,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in an open letter to British farmers.
The government last February announced that more than £168 million (193 million euros) in grants will be available to farmers this year to “drive the development of new technology and innovative ways of farming”.