The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has concluded that the UK government has not demonstrated a strong understanding of the labour issues facing the food and farming sectors.

These issues include food security, animal welfare and the mental health of those working in the sector.

This was one of the main takeaways of its Labour shortages in the food and farming sector report published today (Wednesday, April 6).

Furthermore, the committee said that there has been an "unwelcome tendency" for the government to blame the sector for not doing more to tackle these problems or fully utilising the immigration system - sometimes on the basis of incorrect information.

It said that the government must "radically shift its attitude" and work together with the sector to devise short, medium and long-term solutions to these problems.

Failure to do so, the EFRA committee said, risks shrinking the sector and could lead to higher food inflation at the price of the UK's competitiveness, thereby making the country more reliant on food imports.

Response

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) said that today's report "backs up the NFU’s long-standing call for a more enabling immigration policy which mitigates against the crippling labour shortages and structural issues that have existed throughout the food supply chain for many months".

Speaking on behalf of the union, president Minette Batters added:

“The NFU, alongside the whole food supply chain, continues to seek a review of the current immigration system, including the Shortage Occupation List and Seasonal Worker Scheme as recommended by the Migrant Advisory Committee (MAC) 20 months ago."

The EFRA committee report called on the government to make this scheme permanent.

"This would help ensure that the labour needs of the food supply chain are met and help to shore up the estimated 500,000 vacancies left unfilled across the food and farming industry," Batters continued.

"These vacancies threaten our own UK food security, and our ability to contribute to the nation’s economy through increased exports."

In response to the report, 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 [The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs'] 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," the spokesperson added.

EFRA

The EFRA committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of Defra and associated public bodies.

It comprises:

  • Neil Parish MP (Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton) (chair);
  • Kirtsy Blackman MP (Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North);
  • Ian Byrne MP (Labour, Liverpool, West Derby);
  • Geraint Davies MP (Labour (Co-op), Swansea West);
  • Rosie Duffield MP (Labour, Canterbury);
  • Barry Gardiner MP (Labour, Brent North);
  • Dr Neil Hudson MP (Conservative, Penrith and The Border);
  • Robbie Moore MP (Conservative, Keighley);
  • Mrs Sheryll Murray MP (Conservative, South East Cornwall);
  • Julian Sturdy MP (Conservative, York Outer);
  • Derek Thomas MP (Conservative, St. Ives).