'Bizarre and deeply disappointing'

TBIJ investigation latest: watchdog criticises Home Office over dropping farmworker visa review

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The head of the independent watchdog for immigration has criticised the Home Office for failing to publish a promised review of the UK’s seasonal worker scheme.

David Neal, the government-appointed independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, made the comments after the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) discovered that the Home Office no longer plans to conduct and publish the review he called for last year.

Concerns about exploitation in the seasonal workers scheme, he said, “make transparency particularly important,” said Neal, a former head of the military police. “It would be very disappointing if, after accepting my recommendation in full, the Home Office did not fulfil its commitment.”

The seasonal worker scheme began in 2019 to address labour shortages in the farming sector, which were expected to be worsened by Brexit. It has since expanded rapidly. There were 2,500 visas available in 2019 but up to 55,000 this year.

Allegations of mistreatment have plagued the programme. A TBIJ investigation earlier this year revealed systemic bullying and abuse of workers, issues that the government had been aware of but failed to investigate.

Neal said he had long been frustrated by the Home Office’s “slow and often incomplete” implementation of his recommendations, including ones it had fully accepted.

In December 2022, Neal published the findings of his inspection into the seasonal worker visa programme. The report made three recommendations, including an “overdue review” of the scheme. The Home Office agreed and anticipated the process would be complete by April 2023.

After the review failed to materialise, 10 non-profit organisations and academics wrote letters to the immigration minister Robert Jenrick, calling for the review to be published and for fairer recruitment practises in the scheme.

Responding, Jenrick stated there were no plans to publish reviews of the scheme, as they were of “limited value”. Earlier commitments to ensuring the scheme protected migrant workers from modern slavery, he wrote, “in no way committed the Home Office to producing ongoing reports in perpetuity”.

Caroline Robinson, founder of the Worker Support Centre, a Scotland-based organisation that provides assistance to seasonal workers, also signed the letter to Jenrick. She told TBIJ she believed the Home Office wasn’t interested in understanding the risks faced by people on the scheme. The publication of a review would create an opportunity for open conversation with the government about what needs to change in order to “really safeguard workers”, she said.

James Lynch, another signatory and founding co-director of the human rights advocacy group FairSquare, said the decision to drop the review was “bizarre and deeply disappointing”.

He added, “There is an urgent need for a full and transparent review of the scheme, to identify as a priority how to make British agriculture safer for migrant workers.”

The Home Office said it has been making improvements to “stop exploitation and clamp down on poor working conditions” since the seasonal worker visa scheme was launched. It added: “We will always take decisive action where we believe abusive practices are taking place.”

By Hajar Meddah and Emiliano Mellino