Departments must take urgent action to address labour shortages in the agri-food industry or risk permanent damage to the sector, MPs have warned.
In a report urging the whole of government to take the concerns of farmers and the agri-food sector more seriously, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said labour shortages caused by Brexit and worsened by the pandemic could shrink the sector permanently if the government fails to provide more support.
The government took too long to acknowledge the sector’s mounting concerns about labour shortages earlier last year and the temporary short-term visa routes for poultry workers, pork butchers and HGV drivers unveiled last autumn were “seriously deficient”, the MPs said.
The MPs have called for the government to conduct a "comprehensive" lessons learned exercise on the performance of the schemes, which were unveiled last autumn amid concern in the lead up to Christmas about labour shortages in the sector.
The committee said the visas were introduced too late, with many workers unable to arrive in time to help the sector prepare for Christmas, and were not attractive due to the short notice and limited work period.
In August 2021, around 500,000 of the 4.1 million agri-food jobs in the UK went unfilled. The lack of workers particularly affected the pig industry, with at least 35,000 pigs culled last year due to a lack of butchers to process them.
The lessons learned review “must be informed by meaningful engagement with the sector” and the government should publish results of the study before the end of July, the committee said.
“Government must change its attitude to the food and farming sector – trusting them and acting promptly when they raise concerns,” Efra committee chair Neil Parish said.
David Kennedy, director general of food, farming and bio-security at Defra, told the committee the department had to “wait until the data says there is a problem” in response to concerns raised by industry. He added that “the minute it [the data] did, we could make a case and address it”.
Defra secretary George Eustice added that it was “very easy for people to say ‘too little, too late’” and argued that the department had “acted expeditiously to deal with problems as they arose”.
But the committee said the government should not have been “waiting for the data” before taking any action and should have had contingency plans to mitigate the “fairly obvious” risks.
It said specific measures should have been developed far sooner in response to the first-hand accounts being provided by the sector.
“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 committee said.
The committee has asked for the Food Industry Resillience Forum to meet at least monthly throughout 2022 and 2023, and for a senior Home Office official attends these meetings, with the government publishing minutes within a fortnight. The forum met every week during the first year of the Covid pandemic but has only meet quarterly since April 2021.
It has also called for the government to review the timeliness of the data it relies on and explain to the committee what datasets it uses to monitor the sector, how regularly data is updated, and how long it takes to gather, receive and examine the data.
MPs agreed with the government’s long-term ambitions for the sector to shift its focus away from immigration and toward domestic workers and technological innovation and development.
“While not able to deliver results overnight, a greater focus on the development and deployment of technology combined with attractive educational and vocational training packages to attract British-based workers could reduce the sector’s dependence on overseas labour,” the committee said.
“It is vital that the government works with the sector to develop a sustainable labour plan to make the most of these opportunities and potential.”
To achieve these goals, MPs said the government must produce a long-term strategy setting out how technology and labour will together meet the evolving needs of the agri-food sector.
This work must be cross-departmental and take input from those working in the industry, the report added.
The committee also made a series of recommendations to improve existing visa routes for agri-food workers. Among other things, it said the Home Office should review the aspects of the skilled worker visa scheme which “act as barriers” – such as the English language requirement and the complexity and costs of visa applications – and expand the seasonal worker visa scheme.
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.”
The spokesperson said Defra has given industry greater certainty by extending the seasonal workers scheme until the end of 2024 and expanding the points-based skilled worker route visa to more occupations, including butchers.