The Government spent more than £30,000 promoting the failed Pick For Britain scheme as farmers could not recruit the 60,000 British volunteers needed to save UK crops when the coronavirus pandemic stopped seasonal foreign workers from entering the last year.
Yet £29,830 was spent between April 2020 and April 2021 on the failed scheme, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told the Daily Mail in a response to a Freedom of Information request.
The figure includes £1,424 paid to Concordia Ltd, a volunteering and international work placements charity, for a film of UK farm workers ‘used to create promotional recruitment materials for the Pick for Britain campaign’, the department’s response read.
Another £2,500 was then paid to the National Union of Students (NUS) so the Government could find out what went wrong after the scheme was scrapped in April 2021.
Pick for Britain, brought in by the Government in April 2020, was scrapped after 12 months when Britons struggled with the workload required.
In April 2020, within minutes of Environment Secretary George Eustice’s call for Britons to sign up, Pick For Britain’s website crashed as thousands of people logged on.
Visitors increased from 2,000 to more than 160,000 during the news conference.
But despite the heavy influx of applications, of the 70,000 picking and packing roles needed in 2020, fewer than 7,000 Britons actually took up jobs.
One frustrated applicant told Aljazeera he sent out 35 CVs to farms across the country which were advertising on a website called British Summer Fruits, but did not get a single response.
‘I was in a Catch-22 – their websites were telling me you don’t need training, but when I was phoning up, they were telling me you do need training. So which is it?’ he said.
‘There are false claims about people not taking up farming jobs. They’re blaming it on the British working people and it’s not our fault at all,’ he added.
But this was not the case according to Concordia, which found only 150 farm jobs were accepted by British workers in April 2020, despite the 50,000 expressions of interest.
The Alliance of Ethical Labour Providers also found, despite receiving 36,000 applications of interest, only 6,000 accepted interviews.
In May last year Ali Capper, the Horticulture and Potatoes Board Chairman for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), revealed furloughed office workers might not be physically fit enough if they haven’t used the necessary muscles before.
She said: ‘These jobs are hard work. You have to be physically fit. For people used to an office or computer-based working life they will find they’re using muscles they haven’t used.’
John Colegrave, farmer at Wykham Park Farm in Banbury, said he employed 20 British workers to pick the fields at his farm, but only eight stayed because ‘it’s not everyone’s cup of tea’.
‘A lot didn’t know what the job involved before they started. We had five who came and lasted an hour and said ‘I don’t think this one is for me’ and five or six that we had to sort of let go.
‘They were willing but they were never going to keep up. We had a friendly discussion and they went elsewhere.’
The Pick for Britain website is no longer advertising farm work – and now has a notice on its homepage thanking growers, recruiters and retailers for taking part.
The message reads: ‘Defra would like to extend its sincere gratitude to all campaign partners who supported this project…With your help, the Pick for Britain message generated unprecedented interest in these roles across the country, and helped our farmers and growers bring home the harvest.’
It adds: ‘HM Government will continue to help UK farmers and growers recruit the seasonal workers they need, including support for workers from the domestic labour market, those with EU Settled Status, and those coming in through the HMG Seasonal Workers Pilot.’
Last year’s recruitment drive involved supermarket chain Waitrose & Partners, which put a television campaign on ITV.
Alongside imagery of pastoral landscapes were the words: ‘Pick the sun on your back and the dirt under your nails. Pick putting money in your pocket. Pick rising to a challenge. Pick being a key worker. Pick being part of something bigger. Pick for Britain.’
But farmers faced less idealised scenes on land across the UK as crops had to be left to rot in the fields.
In May last year, Matthew Spanton, a partner at Edward Spanton Farms in Kent, told Business Matters 15 workers were supposed to fly to the UK but their flights were cancelled.
He added: ‘We have 40 out of the 70 to 80 workers we usually have. 15 more were meant to fly over this weekend but flights have been stopped by the Romanian government.
‘They were allowed to book them through Whizz Air but then they got cancelled.’
Instead, five British furloughed workers – including two members of BA cabin crew, an electrician, a mother whose husband had been furloughed and was looking after the children and a chef – were helping out in the packhouse.
The rest of the workers were from eastern Europe but all had to be retrained because they had no experience in asparagus picking.
He admitted the farm ‘won’t be able to harvest everything’ because of the dramatic shortage of workers.
‘Some crop will be left in the ground. It’s been better this week because it’s cold and the rain has slowed things down but next week we won’t be able to harvest quickly enough,’ he said.
Fears seasonal workers would not be able to help with the harvest went unfounded in May when flights began to open up again.
Bulgaria resumed commercial flights to the UK from May 1, with Romania following shortly after.
It comes as it was claimed Brexit has caused a ‘massive hole’ in the numbers of people coming to the UK to pick fruit in the summer months putting growers ‘on the brink’ again this year.
Numbers of seasonal workers applying to work at one Kent-based company are down 90 per cent in the last two years and there are fears for the future.
Stephen Taylor, managing director of Winterwood Farms Ltd, said the labour market has got ‘tighter and tighter’ over the last couple of years.
He said the impact of Brexit on the flow of workers to UK farms is only getting worse.
A spokesman from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the Government will ‘always back our farmers and growers’ and ensure producers across the UK have the support and workforce that they need.
In a response to MailOnline’s FOI the department said: ‘Defra is working closely with the Home Office to ensure that there is a long-term strategy for the UK’s food and farming workforce as part of future immigration policies.’
But Mr Taylor said: ’95 per cent of all fruit and produce picked and packaged in this country is done by eastern Europeans.
‘From the end of June, people who haven’t got pre-settled status, at least, can’t work.
‘We are not talking about a few tens of thousands, we are talking hundreds of thousands of people less to work in the UK. That’s a massive hole’.
Two years ago, Mr Taylor’s firm received about 20 applications a day from people wanting to come to the UK to work picking fruit, but this year it is just two a day.
‘We are right at the brink now,’ he said.