GOVERNMENT ministers refused to believe food industry warnings about labour shortages – and if they continue to disregard the labour market facts, the UK's capacity to make its own food will be permanently reduced.

In a stinging rebuke to the UK Government's handling of the agri-labour crisis, Westminster's cross party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee – chaired by Tory MP Neil Parish – concluded that despite the sector flagging its concern about the lack of workers due to Covid-19 and Brexit, the shortage of labour was allowed to continue, impairing food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those left working in the industry.

Said Mr Parish: “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," said Mr Parish. "Our food and farmers depend on it.”

The Committee said that despite valiant attempts by the industry, Ministers had 'failed to understand the issues' and even sought to pass the blame onto the sector. EFRA's report urges Government to 'have a radical rethink' to prevent future interventions coming too late.

One immediate step to address the current crisis would be changes to the current immigration regime, including a review of the Skilled Workers Visa scheme, to reduce the complexity and costs faced by employers and tailor its English language requirement to meet the needs of the sector.

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NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy welcomed the EFRA committee report, saying that it tallied with the union's own calls for action: "The UK government must do more to address the acute labour shortages that exist throughout Scotland’s food and farming sector as a result of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and now exacerbated by the crisis in Ukraine.

“These shortages have threatened our food security, the welfare of our animals, and affected the mental health of those working in the sector. NFUS wants to see an improved and expanded Seasonal Workers Scheme, a step change from the government in how it engages with the industry, a review of aspects of the Skilled Worker Visa Scheme that act as barriers to immigration, and the development of a long-term strategy that combines migration, innovation, and skills development in rural areas," said Mr Kennedy.

“These changes are vital to ensuring stability in our domestic food production, enabling Scotland’s farmers and crofters to continue to provide the quality, sustainable produce expected by consumers."