A new report by MPs has warned that food prices could rise unless the government changes its approach to its post-Brexit UK immigration system. According to an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) inquiry into labour in the food supply chain ‘getting food businesses to move away from migrant workers will take time.’
The cross-party group of MPs has instead suggested a more transitional shift away from migrant labour rather than a hard stop when freedom of movement rights between Europe and the UK officially end on 1 January, 2021.
The group has called on the government to be flexible in its approach to its post-Brexit UK immigration system in case its existing policy has an adverse effect on food businesses or food security. The MPs also urged the government to add job roles, such as veterinarians, to the Skilled Worker Shortage Occupation List.
Seasonal Worker Program extended for 2021
The report by the MPs also demanded immediate action on announcing the number of UK visas that will be available to foreign workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in 2021.
On 22 December, a government press release announced that the pilot program, originally launched in 2019, would be extended by a further 12 months and 30,000 visas would be made available for foreign workers to come to the UK for six months.
However, amid continued food industry growth, experts in the sector insist that more 70,000 work permits are needed each year. Food producers were recently warned that they could be forced to cut back in 2021 if uncertainty surrounding migrant workers continues.
EFRA Committee chair, Neil Parish, said: “With its Brexit nonchalance, the government is taking a huge risk with British farming. 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 companies now face a cliff edge with no clear plan about how to move forwards. If UK farmers and food producers can’t get the workers they need, we risk higher food prices or cheap imports produced to standards we wouldn’t tolerate here. This transition needs to be properly managed, with provisions made to prepare businesses,” Parish added.
Among its recommendations, the EFRA Committee suggested a series of long-term solutions to offset the loss of migrant workers, including greater support for training more British workers for food supply chain jobs and helping farmers and food producers make the switch to new technologies that would reduce labour requirements.
Responding to the report by MPs, the government maintained that the post-Brexit UK immigration system would ‘benefit the entire country’ and would lead to further investment in the workforce that’s already in the UK.
The Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had been in discussions to determine the number of UK visas that would be available under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme for 2021.
The expansion of the scheme comes following efforts made by DEFRA, the National Farmers Unions and the Association of Labour Providers to raise awareness of the additional need for seasonal workers across all parts of the UK.
A spokesperson for DEFRA said: “We are in regular contact with the food industry to support its preparations for a range of scenarios, and will continue to work closely with them to ensure people across the country have the food and supplies they need.”
Bleak outlook for food industry
With Brexit looming, the food industry has repeatedly predicted a bleak outlook for the sector once free movement ends and has taken several swipes at the Home Office’s new immigration rules.
Following the launch of its inquiry in March, the EFRA Committee has heard how many UK food businesses are severely underprepared or unable to appropriately plan for Brexit because of a lack of details provided by the government.
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