What do you take from the strikingly low take-up numbers for the UK’s visa schemes revealed this week? That “less than 100” abattoir workers have applied to come to the UK despite 800 visas being made available? That only a “couple hundred” HGV drivers showed an interest even though 5,000 places are on offer?

The Home Office line is this: “Immigration doesn’t guarantee you labour supply.” The Home Office is “not an international labour agency” and now the schemes are in place it is the responsibility of business to attract the workers they need, immigration minister Kevin Foster argued on Tuesday.

The visa schemes can be a success, Foster insists. Just look at poultry, which has hired a “couple of thousand” foreign workers. It is simply a question of engagement. The biggest poultry companies have all signed up to be sponsors for skilled worker visas (an alternative permanent visa scheme), for example, while just one of the four major pork processors has done the same.

Foster is of course right to say immigration does not guarantee labour. The best-designed visa scheme in the world cannot make foreign workers want to come to the UK – especially when, in the case of many HGV drivers and abattoir workers, they are enjoying superior pay and conditions elsewhere.

But beyond Foster’s truisms, many claims are spurious. The government’s official list of visa sponsors, for example, shows that contrary to his assertion that only one pork processor has signed up as a sponsor, the UK’s four biggest – Cranswick, Pilgrim’s, Karro and Morrisons – are all in fact registered. Engagement is not the issue. 

Plus, while he argues the UK has “one of the quickest visa application processes” in the world, the temporary visa schemes only launched in October and won’t last long. The poultry visas expire on New Year’s Eve, or in February for HGV drivers.

As the Migration Advisory Committee stated in its annual report today: “It may be more sensible to consider designing a formalised route that can be temporarily accessed under clear criteria rather than announcing last-minute changes.”

The schemes are also expensive. Companies must recruit via designated labour providers who charge up to £800 for registration plus the visa itself of around £300. On top of this, there is a requirement to provide accommodation as a pre-requisite for any legal migration. Poultry processors are slightly more accustomed to this, given they have long brought over foreign workers for their Christmas rush. Pork processors, not so much. 

One major poultry processor told The Grocer the scheme would ultimately end up losing it money – but that it must use it anyway to avoid breaking customer contracts over Christmas.

It’s easy to see why many in the food industry (and Defra) are fed up with the Home Office. It’s not just the flawed system it has put in place, but the lies/confusion relayed in public forums (see above), and the refusal to accept responsibility for problems in its schemes – “we’ve offered engagement, we’ve offered priority service”.

Nonetheless, the insistence from bodies like the NFU that it is now down to government to fix the supply chain crisis is misguided. If immigration is what you need, then pragmatism alone tells you this government, elected on a strict immigration manifesto, is not going to budge (much). Banging the drum on foreign workers as the only way to solve the labour shortages is a hiding to nothing.

Seasonal horticulture is unfortunately at the sharp end of this stick. It’s hard to see how such farms can function without a ready supply of migrant labour. Foster confirmed this week the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme for foreign workers will stay at 30,000 slots next year, and many growers insist this is not enough. Some have already cut planting by up to 35% for next year as a result.

But many sectors can, and arguably must, come together to solve the issues without government support. In some corners this is already underway, and leading to rising wages and better conditions.

This work needs to extend further into a strategic assessment of how businesses can better access parts of the British population that are still largely absent from the workforce. How does it reach out to young workers? How does it tap into harder-to-reach communities like the long-term unemployed or those with disabilities? And can changes in government policy help this? Can employment schemes like Kickstart or job centres be better leveraged, for example?

These questions at least have a mutual benefit for both industry and government. Yes, immigration may still be necessary to make up a shortfall once all is said and done. But hoping that the Home Office will change direction under this current regime will leave many businesses as good as dead. There’s more that can be done in the meantime.