fruit picking workers

A damning report found the government had been too slow to act on numerous warnings of labour shortages caused by Brexit and the pandemic

The government has been accused of a “failure to grasp” the labour issues faced by the food and farming sectors and warned that, without a dramatic change in policy, food production in the UK is at risk.

A damning report into the food sector’s labour crisis – published today (6 April) by the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee – concluded ministers had been too slow to act on numerous warnings of labour shortages caused by Brexit and the pandemic. And they had also failed to demonstrate a “strong understanding” of these issues, Efra MPs found.

In urging government to have a “radical rethink to prevent future interventions coming too late”, they were particularly critical of Kevin Foster, the Home Office minister for safe and legal migration – who had drawn the ire of committee chair Neil Parish during an evidence session for its inquiry in December.

There had been “an unwelcome tendency for the government to blame the sector for not doing more to tackle the problem or fully utilising the immigration system – sometimes on the basis of incorrect information”, the cross-party committee said.

And Foster represented “the most serious example of this”, when he suggested that “labour shortages in pigmeat production did not seem to be a real problem” as only one large pork processor had sought a licence to sponsor skilled worker visa applicants.

Foster had told the committee in mid-December that fewer “than 100 applications” had been made for the 800 pork butcher visas, before adding it was “safe to say we have not been rushed off our feet with applications”.

But his comments were met by a withering response from the committee, which noted that numerous food sector representatives had pointed out the visa had been “too little too late”. The committee then quoted the Provision Trade Federation, which cautioned that poor take-up of the available visas in the available time “should not be taken as indicating any lack of need, simply the practical difficulties of putting such arrangements in place so close to Christmas”.

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This was also the case for the government’s “seriously deficient” temporary short-term visa schemes for poultry workers and HGV drivers, the report added.

They had been “implemented too late, with many workers unable to arrive in time to help the sector prepare for Christmas and avoid poultry businesses reducing production”, it pointed out.

Additionally, they were “not attractive due to the short notice and the very limited periods of time workers were allowed to work in the UK”, and as a result, the committee was “therefore not surprised that the number of successful applicants was far below the number of visas available”.

Given a Grant Thornton report last August had estimated food sector vacancies of 500,000 across a total of 4.1 million roles, the committee added there was “clear evidence labour shortages have badly affected the food and farming industry – threatening food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those working in the sector”.

This was further reinforced by the testimony of food sector groups throughout the year, MPs said, as they slammed ministers for “waiting for the data” before taking any action.

“The whole of government needs a step change in how it engages with industry, taking seriously the concerns they raise and acting promptly on them,” the report urged.

“As a first step in achieving this, we recommend that the Food Industry Resilience Forum should meet at least monthly throughout 2022 and 2023, for a senior Home Office official to attend, and for the government to publish minutes of its meetings within a fortnight.”

Revised immigration measures could also address the current crisis, the committee added.

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One example was for a review of the Skilled Workers Visa scheme “including the complexity and costs faced by employers and tailoring the English language requirement to meet the needs of the sector”.

And while there had been “welcome changes” to the Seasonal Workers Pilot, the inclusion of the ornamental sector meant the government now needed to make available the extra 10,000 visas it had previously earmarked and for the scheme to be made permanent, it insisted.

“In 2021, farmers faced an extraordinary situation – crops were left to rot in the fields and healthy pigs were culled due to a lack of workers,” said Neil Parish.

“This has serious implications for the wellbeing of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future,” he added. “The government’s attitude to the plight of food and farming workers was particularly disappointing.

“While some of the reforms put forward by government have helped in the short term, and we agreed that we must look to expand the domestic workforce – this won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, it must use the powers available – including over immigration policy – to support the sector. Otherwise we will export our food production and import more of our food.”