Scottish rural affairs secretary, Mairi Gougeon, has called for a meeting with UK secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Steve Barclay, due to concerns over labour shortages in the Scottish food and drink sector.

Gougeon wrote to Barclay today (Saturday, February 23) to “highlight the scourge of labour shortages on our invaluable food and drink sector”.

In the letter, Gougeon said she has written repeatedly to UK government ministers over the issue and is “confounded” at the lack of response.

She said the “significant issue” was also outlined in a letter sent to the UK government on February 6, 2024.

“That letter recognises that UK migration policy may not be the only answer to labour shortages but also urges the UK government to recognise it is a very significant factor,” she said.

“It says ‘the UK requires a sustained high level of annual net migration to maintain the size of the UK’s workforce in the context of our ageing population.

“Businesses who cannot recruit people into key positions will ultimately fail, and that has a knock-on effect across the supply chain and the wider economy.”

In effect, Gougeon said, the post-Brexit loss of EU nationals has led to significant and immediate gaps in labour that cannot be quickly or easily replaced.

“This is particularly true for those parts of the sector that have traditionally relied on migrant labour and who are now feeling that loss most keenly,” she said.

“Surely, we all have a shared interest in a UK immigration system that ensures business can access the labour that they have very clearly said they need. The joint letter from industry could not be clearer about that message.”

Migration policy

Gougeon said the letter highlights that recent UK government announcements about migration policy, such as the adjustments to the Skilled Worker Visa salary thresholds (to increase the minimum earnings threshold from £26,200 to £38,700) have the potential to impact seriously on Scotland’s food and drink sector.

“We also continue to await your government’s response to the June 30, 2023, independent review of labour shortages in the food supply chain in England,” she wrote.

“I have written repeatedly to UK government ministers to ask for early sight of your response to that significant review given that any actions that the UK government takes, in light of the review, could make a real difference to help address labour shortages.

“The UK government response was expected last autumn, and I understand that it has since been deferred until early this year, but we still have no information about exactly when it will issue or whether we or the other devolved governments will receive advance sight of it. At the same time, the sector is beset by an array of issues.”

Gougeon said it is bad enough to attribute those issues to the continued legacy of Brexit, and that some seem to be choices taken by the UK government.

This includes UK government proposals to extend the ‘not for EU’ labelling requirements beyond the term of the Windsor Framework, she said, so that they apply to certain agri-food products GB-wide, rather than just those products destined for Northern Ireland.

“On the face of it, these seem arbitrary and are likely to have a disproportionate impact on industry,” she said.

“This is also at a time when further red tape, from import controls, are pending with checks ramping up in April and beyond and consumers are already bearing the burden of added food costs.

“All of this points to UK policies that continue to be made without due consideration of economic impacts on, or meaningful consultation with, the industries most affected by it, including our sensitive seafood and red meat sectors.”

‘Work together’

“Rather than my having to resort yet again to another letter about all of these issues, it would be best for us to meet to discuss how we can work together effectively to try to make some headway to support the sector,” she said.

Gougeon said working together can be planned at the next EFRA portfolio inter0ministerial group meeting, together with the other devolved governments, and/or in a bilateral meeting with Barclay.

“I would hope that, in doing so, you can reverse the trend of poor UK government ministerial representation at these very important meetings,” she said.

“Instead, we should work together to help address the cumulative impacts on the sector. This approach is surely in the best interests of the sector that, amongst others, we are in government to represent.”

Gougeon said she is copying this letter to cabinet secretary for social justice, Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP; cabinet secretary for wellbeing economy, net zero and energy, Mairi McAllan MSP; minister for equalities, migration and refugees, Emma Roddick MSP; secretary of state for the home department; James Cleverly MP; minister of state for food, farming and fisheries, Mark Spencer MP; minister for the economy, Vaughan Gething MS; minister for rural affairs and north Wales and Trefnydd in the Welsh government, Lesley Griffiths MS; and to minister for agriculture, environment and rural affairs in the Northern Ireland executive, Andrew Muir MLA.