The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee urged the Government to have a “radical rethink” after criticising ministers for failing to understand and engage with growing labour shortage problems in the agricultural industry.
The report singled out Environment Secretary George Eustice and Home Office Minister Kevin Foster for specific criticism.
Committee chair and Conservative MP Neil Parish said: “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. This has serious implications for the well-being of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future. The Government’s attitude to the plight of food and farming workers was particularly disappointing.”
The committee’s report said that by August last year, there were an estimated 500,000 vacancies among the nation’s 4.1 million food and farming roles.
It said: “The evidence we have received leaves us in no doubt that labour shortages, caused by Brexit and accentuated by the pandemic, have badly affected businesses across the food and farming sector. If not resolved swiftly, they threaten to shrink the sector permanently with a chain reaction of wage rises and price increases reducing competitiveness, leading to food production being exported abroad and increased imports.
“We are also extremely concerned about the impact this is having on the wellbeing and mental health of people working in the sector.”
The report said the food production sector has been historically reliant on overseas workers, particularly from the EU.
It said there had been a “particularly devastating impact” in the pig sector, where a shortage of skilled butchers has led to at least 35,000 pigs being culled on farms. The National Pig Association, which provided the figure to the committee in January, said it is “widely agreed that the actual number will be much higher”.
It noted: “We know from the experience of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 how severe the mental impact of on-farm culling is on farmers and it is only ever done as a desperate last resort.”
The committee warned the situation was having a “financial and emotional” impact on farmers.
The report said some measures, such as making additional visas for pork butchers available, had been taken by the Government but the issue was yet to be resolved.
The Government offered 800 temporary visas for pork butchers but only 115 were issued and the industry said that the true shortfall is around 10,000 to 12,000 such workers.
The committee said it was “particularly disappointed” at comments from Mr Eustice “suggesting the current plight of pig farmers was simply the materialisation of a commercial risk for which businesses should be prepared”.
It said Mr Eustice’s comments “demonstrated a lack of understanding of the issues facing pig farmers, many of whom are having to cull animals and thereby suffering damage to their businesses but also their mental health and wellbeing”.
The committee found the visa schemes for pork butchers, as well as poultry workers and HGV drivers, to have been “seriously deficient” - being implemented too late for the run-up to Christmas and only offering workers very limited periods of time to work in the UK, making the programmes unattractive to prospective foreign employees. But it said other similar but better managed schemes may be needed again in future.
The report also noted labour problems in other parts of the food production industry, with companies giving evidence about having to leave hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of produce to rot in the fields due to a lack of staff.
One farm company in Suffolk said it had wasted 44 tonnes of fruit.
There were also labour shortages reported in the poultry industry, resulting in cutbacks to production, as well as 20 per cent of orders for supermarkets being delayed as a result of similar issues in the food processing sector.
Shortages of HGV drivers and in warehouses were also adding to distribution problems.
Attempts to increase wages had only met with limited success, the committee said.
One firm called Sharrington Strawberries increased rates for seasonal pickers by 50 per cent but were still only able to recruit two-thirds of the 60 workers they required.
The report said that in the longer-term, more efforts are needed to encourage British workers to take jobs in the sector.
It said a long-term strategy is needed with consideration of how “attractive educational and vocational training packages” could attract British workers.
The report also condemned what it termed “the Government’s failure to grasp the labour issues faced by the food and farming sector, and the actual experience of businesses on the ground”.
It said: “There has also 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.”
It added: “The most serious example of this was when the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration, Kevin Foster MP, 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.
“When we pointed out to the Minister that all four big processors in fact held licences, he corrected the record but contended that ‘the key point remains’ that only one large processor had ‘sponsored any butchers to date’.
“Businesses have found the Skilled Worker Visa route unattractive for several reasons which can deter them from seeking workers through it (and exercising a licence they hold).
“In addition, Mr Foster was unaware of the nature of the English language requirement for the Skilled Worker Visa, and used his flawed understanding (that only ‘basic conversational English’ was required) as the basis to blame the sector for not making full use of the Skilled Worker Visa scheme.”
The report concluded: “The Government must radically shift its attitude and work together with the sector to devise solutions that speedily help address the problems it faces, in the short, medium and long-term to help the UK’s food industry and enable it to thrive. Failure to do so risks shrinking the sector and leading to higher food inflation at the price of the UK’s competitiveness, thereby making the country more reliant on food imports as we export our food production capacity — as well as the jobs it supports — abroad.”
Committee chair Mr Parish said: “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.
“Even more importantly, Government must change its attitude to the food and farming sector – trusting them and acting promptly when they raise concerns. Our food and farmers depend on it.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We fully acknowledge that the food and farming industry is facing labour challenges and we continue to work with the sector to mitigate them. This includes Defra’s upcoming response to the automation review - the first step in understanding how the Government can support the uptake of automation technologies and reduce horticulture’s reliance on seasonal migrant labour.
“We have given the industry greater certainty by enabling the seasonal workers scheme until the end of 2024, allowing overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in the horticulture sector. Our new points-based immigration system also expanded the Skilled Worker route to many more occupations, including butchers, who can now be recruited from anywhere in the world.”
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