The Government must be ready to make changes to its new immigration policy, or risk increased food prices, according to a new report by a cross-party group of MPs. The House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has today published the conclusion to its Labour in the Food Supply Chain inquiry, warning that the Government’s plans to restrict UK food producers’ access to workers from Europe risks undermining their competitiveness, as they haven’t been given time to adapt.
With non-UK EEA (European Economic Area) nationals accounting for the majority of workers in key sectors of the industry such as meat processing and picking crops, the UK food and farming industries face dramatic changes as Freedom of Movement comes to an end on 31 December. Acknowledging that the change provides employment opportunities for British workers, the EFRA Committee’s recommendations to ease the transition include:
· Defra should monitor the impact of the changes on food prices and imports and the Government should quickly adapt their policy if it becomes clear that it is undermining British business’ competitiveness or the UK’s food security.
· Government support for re-skilling and re-training British workers for the new opportunities within the food supply chain. The Committee also calls on Defra to urgently publish a new strategy detailing how it will support farmers and food producers to develop and make affordable the new technologies the Government hopes will replace a proportion of the sector’s labour force.
· The Government should follow its own Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations to place critical roles such as veterinary nurses, meat hygiene inspectors and butchers on the Shortage Occupation List.
· The number of visas that will be issued under the Seasonal Workers Pilot for next year should be confirmed immediately so farmers know whether they will have the staff needed. The Committee criticised the Government for making policy on seasonal workers without having the data on how many currently work in UK agriculture necessary to be able to understand the impact their changes will have. Given this, and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period, it called for the cap to be set high enough so farmers will not be constrained in recruiting the labour they need.
Neil Parish MP, Chair of the EFRA Committee, said: “Leaving the EU means that the food supply sector will need to be weaned off its reliance on European workers. This could be a great opportunity for UK workers in the long-term, if employers are forced to improve pay and conditions. But this will take time.
“By leaving its plans vague and not having the proper figures to hand, the Government is effectively turning off the tap for employers, without giving them time to adapt. Many businesses are now facing a cliff-edge with no clear plan about how to move forwards. If British farmers and food producers can’t get the workers they need, we all risk higher food prices or more cheap imports produced to standards we wouldn’t tolerate here.
“This transition needs to be properly managed, with appropriate provisions made to prepare British businesses- many of whom have already had an extremely hard year. I urge the Government to reflect on this and be ready to adapt their policy in response to the impact it has.”