MPs warn of labour crisis unless urgent action is taken
27th Apr 2017 / By Alistair Driver
A committee of MPs has warned current labour shortages across the agricultural sector could become a crisis unless urgent measures are taken.
In a report on its inquiry into labour constraints in food production, the Environment Food, and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, chaired by Neil Parish (left) echoed industry fears that the Government is not taking the threat seriously enough, especially in the context of Brexit. It described the Government’s official statistics on the issue as ‘inadequate’.
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies, who gave evidence to the inquiry, welcomed EFRA’s core conclusions but again stressed the need for solutions to focus on encouraging permanent workers, as well as seasonal schemes.
In the key passage, the report said: “The weight of evidence from a range of agricultural and horticultural businesses indicates that their sectors are facing considerable difficulties in recruiting and retaining labour.
“We do not share the confidence of the Government that the sector does not have a problem: on the contrary, evidence submitted to this inquiry suggests the current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply.”
The report was critical of evidence, given by Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill and Farming Minister George Eustice, who were both adamant there was ‘no suggestion of a problem’ in the short-term, at least until we leave the EU. The committee noted industry concerns about the statistics used to back up their claims, including quoting the total number of migrants, rather than industry-specific workers, and an over-reliance on citing the number of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania.
The report expressed ‘concern’ at the marked difference in the evidence provided by Government and industry.
“It is apparent that the statistics used by the Government are unable to provide a proper indication of agriculture’s labour needs,” it said, calling for the statistics to be reviewed by the end of 2017 to give the sector confidence in the adequacy of the official data on which post-Brexit employment and immigration policies will be based.
However, the report did not go into detail in recommending solutions, other than noting that the reintroduction of a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme is ‘under review’ and could be introduced in ‘five or six months’ if the Government identified a need.
It concluded: “It is vital that the labour supply available to the agriculture and horticulture sectors does not suddenly dry up as a result of any uncertainty caused by the new immigration arrangements instituted following the UK’s exit from the EU.”
Mr Parish said: "Without sufficient labour, both from the UK and overseas, agricultural and horticultural businesses cannot function.
“For a long time the industry has relied on foreign workers to perform temporary and permanent roles to make good shortages in the availability of UK labour; UK agriculture could not function without foreign labour.”
Responding to publication of the report, Zoe said: “We are please the EFRA committee agrees with us and other industry organisations that the Government is simply not taking this issue seriously enough and that its statistics are not fit-for-purpose.
“Ministers need to step up because without sufficient supplies of EU labour, there will be no pig industry as we know it today. As I made clear in my evidence, it is essential that solutions go beyond seasonal schemes – we need permanent skilled and unskilled workers (the Government’s definition, not ours) for our farms and allied industries.”
Giving evidence in February, Zoe highlighted the NPA's survey showing that 58 per cent of businesses across the pig supply chain employed at least one migrant worker, with nearly 20 per cent employing between 11 and 50.
Nearly half would not survive or would be forced to make changes to how they operated without migrant labour.