Greencore factory

Many companies were not ready for the transition to new immigration rules and would struggle to plan for their workforce from 2021, warned the FDF’s Tim Rycroft

There is a “deep sense of foreboding” over the impact new immigration rules will have on the food industry, MPs have heard, with businesses either underprepared or unable to plan due to a lack of detail from government.

Giving evidence yesterday to the Commons Efra Committee’s inquiry into post-Brexit labour in the food supply chain, FDF COO Tim Rycroft warned that many businesses would face “big obstacles” when confronted with the government’s new immigration rules from January, which could ultimately affect production capacity.

In addition to the uncertainty around the coronavirus and access to export markets, a large proportion of food businesses were simply not ready for the transition and would struggle to plan for their workforce from 2021 onwards, he said. This was despite the expected increase in UK labour driven by pandemic-linked job losses.

“It doesn’t look like it will be a good thing for the industry for some time,” he suggested.

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“Many don’t understand we are moving to a completely different immigration system, irrespective of what happens with a trade deal,” he said.

“There are a large number of businesses that have never had to deal with regulations around recruitment – these are companies that will have to pay fees, licenses and appoint new roles to supervise visas – we’re expecting that will be a big shock.”

Rycroft added that an expectation by government that the food industry could automate or recruit more British skilled workers through apprenticeships would also take time to come online. He called on it to “show flexibility” on the definition of skilled workers and its shortage occupation list to “avoid an immediate and drastic cliff-edge” from January.

His comments were echoed by Simon Doherty, senior VP at the British Veterinary Association, who reiterated concerns voiced several times in recent months that the veterinary sector still did not know how many vets it would need post-Brexit.

There was “a complete lack of clarity” from government over what was required over export health certificates, the volume of certification and therefore the amount of vets required.

Meat sector facing labour ‘challenges’ despite decline in EU worker percentage

With more than 50% of all vets registered in the UK from the EU and 95% of vets working in abattoirs EU nationals, there was also a “big concern anything that affects the supply of vets coming into the UK could affect animal welfare”, he added.

“We have huge concerns over our capacity to deal with episodic diseases such as African swine fever, and could we get more people in to deal with something under a points-based system?” he asked, citing the fact the profession was already up to 15% under-staffed.

Meanwhile, The British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths pointed to continuing uncertainty over labelling by warning the sector “doesn’t even know what to put on yet”.

“That, in addition to concerns over the lack of vets and questions over where our labour is going to come from, adds to the uncertainty,” he warned.

The BPC was lobbying for the government to recognise level two food industry workers as skilled alongside level three-qualified staff, he added, but the level of engagement from the government on this issue was low, Griffiths added.

Poultry sector faces £15m staff costs under new immigration rules