Trade bodies from across the agriculture sector have expressed serious concerns about the government’s points-based immigration policy, which home secretary Priti Patel announced on 19 February.
The new system, which will come into effect next January, will end free movement and assign points for specific skills, qualifications, salaries or professions and visas will only be awarded to those who gain enough points.
The government said it had listened to the clear message from the 2016 referendum and the 2019 General Election and would “end the reliance on cheap, low-skilled labour coming into the country.”
From next year, immigrants will have to meet criteria including earning a minimum of £25,600, speaking English and have certain skills and qualifications.
NFU President Minette Batters expressed serious concerns about the government’s failure to recognise British food and farming’s needs within its proposed immigration policy.
“We have said repeatedly that for farm businesses it is about having the full range of skills needed – from pickers and packers to meat processors and vets – if we are to continue to deliver high quality, affordable food for the public. Failure to provide an entry route for these jobs will severely impact the farming sector.
“Automation will have a vital role to play and we fully support investment in this area, but it is not yet a viable option to replace the number of people we need and farmers will need a practical solution in the meantime. There are also some jobs that simply cannot be replaced by technology.”
The British Poultry Council said the poultry sector would be among the hardest hit by the policy, as 60% of the workforce are currently non-UK citizens.
“The Home Office’s new immigration proposals have shown a complete disregard for British food production and will have a crippling effect on our national food security,” said Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council. “I hope the Government understands that the food on their dinner tables is produced in large part by the people who their proposed immigration policy will prevent from coming to this country.
“Poultry is half the meat the country eats. Our sector has grown significantly, beyond the UK labour availability in the areas we operate (where the unemployment rate remains negligible). 60% of our workforce – 22,800 people – are EU nationals who ensure safe, nutritious and affordable food is available for all.
“The current immigration proposals don’t recognise the real needs of this country. Limiting access to labour has the potential to cripple food businesses and make access to quality British food very hard for the vulnerable. 8.4 million people in the UK are still ‘too poor to eat’. Securing British food for future generations must be a national priority. We cannot run the risk of creating a two-tier food system where we import food produced to lower standards and only the affluent can afford high quality British produce.
“Poultry meat producers are determined to move away from reliance on immigration and investing in staff retention, productivity, technology and automation. While automation will reduce the need for non-UK labour in the future, the Government must understand that automation is not a magic bullet that can bridge the skills gap. Our sector has jobs that need human skills, jobs that support our economy and communities, and jobs that ensure everyone has access to British food produced to British standards.
“We welcome the Government’s commitment to expand the pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agriculture. Around 9 million British turkeys are reared for Christmas every year to some of the highest standards in the world. Given that the British poultry meat sector caters to the seasonal agri-food market, we are calling on the Government to extend the seasonal worker scheme to poultry meat to ensure Christmas turkeys remain affordable and available for all.
“The Government must recognise food as a special case that is treated as a national security issue. It must ensure that British food, and the quality it represents, stays affordable and available for all. Losing control of how we feed ourselves as a nation would undermine British food producers at a time when we should be looking to use Brexit as an opportunity to take matters of food security, nutrition, and sustainability into our own hands.”
And vets also raised concerns about the policy. The British Veterinary Association said big questions remained. “Every year over half of new entrants onto the UK veterinary register are from overseas, with the vast majority coming from the EU via freedom of movement. Once free movement ends in January 2021, it will be replaced with an employer-led points-based system which is likely to place a significant administrative burden on veterinary businesses who will be required to sponsor recruits from outside of the UK,” said BVA President Daniella Dos Santos.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Today is a historic moment for the whole country. We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down.
“We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential.
“The points threshold will be carefully set to attract the talent the UK needs. Skilled workers will need to meet a number of relevant criteria, including specific skills and the ability to speak English, to be able to work in the UK. All applicants will be required to have a job offer and, in line with the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) recommendations, the minimum salary threshold will be set at £25,600.”
The new points-based system will also expand the skills threshold for skilled workers. Those looking to live and work in the UK will now need to be qualified up to A level or equivalent, rather than degree level under the current system.
In line with the government’s manifesto commitment there will be no specific route for low-skilled workers. It is estimated 70% of the existing EU workforce would not meet the requirements of the skilled worker route, which will help to bring overall numbers down in future.