Farming: Brexit labour shortages harm UK food security

Farming and food industry leaders have once again blasted what they term the UK Government’s complacency and intransigence, claiming post-Brexit immigration policy has starved the country’s producers and processors of access to labour.

James Withers, Scotland Food and Drink
James Withers, Scotland Food and Drink

And it was also claimed that the approach was a major contributor to both rising food costs and food security issues which were being felt across the country during a public evidence session of the independent UK Trade and Business Commission this week, which focused on the rising costs of living and food crises.

The session also heard that it was almost impossible for those affected by the labour shortages to gain a foot in the government’s door in order to highlight the damage being caused by post-Brexit labour shortages.

And it heard that it would be a “massive step forward” if such conversations could take place.

Chief executive of Food and Drink Scotland, James Withers, said that the labour market had been in “turmoil” in Scotland.

But while gaining access to the Home Office for a sensible conversation on these issues was vital, at the moment the government seemed to be keen to keep its fingers in its ears rather than hear the scale of the problem.

“We somehow have to find a way of unlocking the Home Office to have a more sensible conversation about all this, because I'll be honest, we cannot get in the door to have a conversation, a sensible conversation about immigration,” said Withers.

“Brexit has made absolutely nothing better and it’s made a lot of things worse.”

The English NFU’s Phil Hambling also slammed the UK Government for "strangling labour policy and limiting capacity", citing this as the single biggest issue impacting horticulture.

“The way labour policy has been treated since coming out of the European Union has absolutely been crippling for the entire food industry,” said Hambling.

“The biggest single factor reducing growth in horticulture is access to people and labour. The ability for the industry to not only weather the storm like we see now, but also to grow in the future is predicated on having a labour policy that meets its needs.”

Witnesses also cited how Brexit had exacerbated these issues and had a knock-on effect on the cost of living crisis, highlighting the weaker pound and the “tsunami” of red tape as contributing factors.

They said that making the Brexit deal work more smoothly would make things less painful.

Dr Geoff Mackey, UK Trade and Business Commissioner and director of corporate affairs and sustainability director for BASF, was highly critical.

“The evidence today was clear, the government’s failure to address post-Brexit changes to immigration and the labour market is having a knock-on effect not just on the current cost of living crisis but also on our long term food security.

“Ministers must meet with industry leaders urgently to agree a long-term plan which will prevent acute workforce shortages before they happen, rather than their current reactive sticking plaster strategy.”

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