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UK food sector staff shortages could push prices even higher, MPs warn

MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee warned the food industry risks 'permanent damage' if the government does not act soon. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images
MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee warned the food industry risks 'permanent damage' if the government does not act soon. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

The UK's food industry risks "permanent damage" if the government does not act soon to address workforce shortfalls, ministers warn, as farmers scramble to cope with waves of higher costs.

MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee reported that the sector had half a million vacancies last August, representing an eighth of all roles.

Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have led to chronic labour shortages, which could push food prices even higher and lead to more food having to be imported.

This has led to unharvested crops being left to rot in fields and the culling of healthy pigs due to a lack of workers at meat processing plants, and disruption to the food supply chain.

It pointed out parliamentarians lack of response despite "valiant attempts" from industry chiefs, adding that "ministers failed to understand the issues and even sought to pass the blame onto the sector".

The committee warned that the more than £100bn ($131bn) industry "faces permanent shrinkage if a failure to address its acute labour shortages leads to wage rises, price increases, reduced competitiveness and, ultimately, food production being exported abroad and increased imports".

Neil Parish, the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chairman of the committee, 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 wellbeing 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."

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Farmers had been warning for a while about a lack of employees after many overseas workers left during the COVID crisis, with Brexit limiting the number of EU temporary staffs who can travel to Britain on the seasonal worker visa scheme.

MPs called on the government to make seasonal workers permit permanent. Seasonal permits for people who come to the UK to pick crops or flowers was kept at the 30,000 in 2021.

The report said they had "no doubt about the seriousness of the issues facing the food and farming sector caused by labour shortages", and criticised the government for its approach to post-Brexit visa policies.

"The government has not demonstrated a strong understanding of these issues, and even on occasion sought to pass the blame on to the sector on the basis of incorrect information about its own immigration system," MPs said.

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Hilary Benn MP, co-chair of the UK trade and business commission, said: "Our commission has heard first hand how the government’s Brexit deal has destabilised our food and agricultural sector by undermining their reliable access to labour.

"With profound and long-lasting implications for our food security, animal welfare and the well-being of our farmers, the government must urgently review its byzantine immigration system."

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