Skip to main content

Agri-food Industry: Labour Shortages

Volume 701: debated on Monday 18 October 2021

10. Whether she plans to take steps to amend immigration rules to help tackle labour shortages in the agri-food industry across the UK. (903764)

When we introduced the new skilled worker visa last year, we broadened the skills threshold from the academically focused graduate level under the previous tier 2 visa to school-leaver level, or RQF—regulated qualifications framework—level 3, to ensure that a wider range of skilled work was recognised. That change means that roles such as butcher, farmer and poultry processor qualify for the skilled worker route, allowing recruitment into them on a global level.

I extend my thoughts and prayers to the families, friends, colleagues and staff of Sir David Amess and James Brokenshire. I trust that I will have the opportunity to speak further on that later.

I thank the Home Secretary for meeting me and party colleagues a few short weeks ago on the issue of labour shortages and for the actions taken since then to alleviate the labour supply pressures, but I fear that the short window of opportunity being offered will not be enough to attract the necessary workers. Additionally, our farmers, particularly our pig farmers, are in crisis as we speak in this House today. What additional efforts are being made, alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to support this industry and meet the pressing demand for labour, with farms backing up with healthy pigs and abattoirs cancelling 25% of their pig slaughter due to staff shortages?

I note that the hon. Lady met the Home Secretary recently to talk about this issue. Events have moved on since; we have flexibility on visas and the issues around cold storage are being addressed. However, it is clear that this is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution. We must continue to focus—I think people in our country would rightly expect us to do so—on what more we can do to make sure that we improve skills, training, wages and terms and conditions so that the domestic labour market is able to fulfil these roles in the longer term. We have been responsive to industry’s asks, and of course our ears continue to be open.

It would have been very appropriate today if David Amess had been the first to welcome the new Minister to the Dispatch Box, because the three of us worked together on Grassroots Out, and David held the first rally for us. That is appropriate to this question: is it not right, Minister, that coming out of the European Union gives us the ability to decide on these issues?

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his question. It will not surprise him to hear that only a couple of weeks ago I received a note from Sir David congratulating me on my appointment. It is something that I will absolutely treasure in the years ahead. His encouragement was always second to none. The truth is that people like he and I campaigned in the referendum for a global immigration system, which is exactly what we have delivered. I genuinely believe that that is the right approach to immigration for the years ahead, based on skills—recruiting the skills that we need, but making sure that we do right by the domestic labour market and people in this country by improving skills, opportunity, training and terms and conditions, and making sure that we can recruit more readily to these roles.

I, too, wish to pay my tributes to Sir David and James Brokenshire and pass on my deepest condolences and sympathies to their families. They were two of the kindest, most decent parliamentarians I have ever met. I will certainly miss my conversations with Sir David by the lifts in 1 Parliament Street, always with a smile.

The National Farmers Union has told MPs that there is a chronic shortage of butchers and agriculture workers that has led to 150,000 pigs being backed up on farms. Will the Government add butchers and agriculture workers to the shortage-occupation list, and will the Government agree to review the list earlier than 2022, as is the current plan?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. He should know that the Home Office and Ministers in the Home Office are working constructively with DEFRA, which is regularly engaging, no doubt, with the National Farmers Union around these matters. Following last year’s SOL review by the Migration Advisory Committee, the Government set out their response, stating that the labour market is changing as a result of covid and that it is important to assess changes in the labour market before making widespread changes to the SOL. This is particularly true at a time when so many British people still face uncertain times with the ending of furlough. We are committed to addressing these challenges and we have taken steps in the short term to do so, but, as I say, such steps are really not the long-term solution to those challenges. Of course, we are responsive as the situation develops.

Although I take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) to his position on the Front Bench, he might not welcome what I have to say after I congratulate him and echo the comments he made in condolence for our dear departed colleagues, David and James.

So far, we have not had any facts and figures. What are the numbers of shortages? How many applications have been made? How many visas have been granted?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I say, we have been responsive to the needs that have arisen in our economy. We have been engaging with the various sectors that have come forward to raise concerns. For example, there is a commitment to supporting visas for 4,700 HGV food drivers, up to 5,500 poultry workers and 300 fuel drivers. I think the key thing now is that those industries that sought that extra support and that flexibility through visas now get on and recruit to those roles.