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There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the issues facing the food and farming sector caused by labour shortages, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warned on Wednesday (6 April).

In a new report, 'Labour shortages in the food and farming sector', MPs concluded that UK’s largest manufacturing sector faces permanent damage if the government fails to address the lack of workers due mainly to Covid-19 and Brexit.

Despite the sector flagging significant concern, the shortage of labour in 2021 took a toll on food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those who work in the industry, the committee reports.

In the report, MPs said they were frustrated by the reluctance of government to engage with the industry over labour shortages. Despite valiant attempts by the industry, Ministers failed to understand the issues and even sought to pass the blame onto the sector, they said. Wednesday's report urges government to have a radical rethink to prevent future interventions coming too late.

Revised immigration measures could address the current crisis, the committee said. For example, the report calls for a review of the Skilled Workers Visa scheme including the complexity and costs faced by employers and tailoring the English language requirement to meet the needs of the sector.

While there have been welcome changes to the Seasonal Worker Pilot, the inclusion of the ornamental sector necessitates the government to make available the extra 10,000 visas earmarked and for the scheme to be made permanent, the report said.

However, the committee added that a reliance on overseas labour must be reduced in preference for a long-term labour strategy that grows and develops home-grown talent, combining attractive education and vocational training packages with the deployment of new technology.

While the committee welcomes some of the government’s work in the area, it warns that without fundamental change, the UK is facing a chain reaction of wage rises, leading to price increases and food production being exported abroad.

The chair of the EFRA Committee, Neil Parish MP, said: “In 2021 farmers faced an extraordinary situation – crops were left to rot in the fields and healthy pigs were culled due to a lack of workers. This has serious implications for the well-being of the people who put food on our tables today and in the future. The Government’s attitude to the plight of food and farming workers was particularly disappointing.

“While some of the reforms put forward by Government have helped in the short term, and we agreed that we must look to expand the domestic workforce – this won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, it must use the powers available – including over immigration policy - to support the sector. Otherwise we will export our food production and import more of our food.

“Even more importantly, Government must change its attitude to the food and farming sector – trusting them and acting promptly when they raise concerns. Our food and farmers depend on it.”