Labour Shortages: Agriculture and Fishing

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons on 8th September 2022.

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Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling labour shortages in the (a) food and drink sector, (b) agricultural sector, (c) fishing industry and (d) supply chains for those sectors.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

What recent steps the Government have taken to help ensure an adequate labour supply for the (a) agricultural and (b) fishing industries in Scotland.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Government are working to ensure that UK agriculture and fishing sectors secure the labour that they need. We know that there is a shortage of labour and it is difficult for businesses across the food sector. That is why the Prime Minister committed during the leadership campaign to looking at expanding seasonal worker schemes. The Government have already expanded the number of people in the seasonal worker route to 40,000 for horticulture and poultry in 2022; we have commissioned an independent review into labour shortages in the food supply chain in England; and we launched a £10 million skills and training scheme in August 2022 to support new entrants in the fishing sector.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Ending the freedom of movement has been a catastrophe for constituencies such as Ochil and South Perthshire, with labour shortages in every sector, especially food production. The lack of seasonal workers and the food rotting in the fields are evidence of yet more Brexit chaos. We all must surely agree that food waste is a scandal. Given that the new Prime Minister pledged to expand the seasonal worker scheme if she was elected, when will that be done?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I think we need to give the Prime Minister longer than 48 hours to deliver on that commitment. The hon. Gentleman would have kept us in the common fisheries policy by remaining in the EU. The country requires an immigration system that benefits the United Kingdom; we should not just have an open door to anybody who wants to come. We need to be able to select the people who will assist the UK economy and make sure that the people who come to the United Kingdom benefit the United Kingdom.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

Key sectors are facing acute labour shortages because of a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. Salmon Scotland has reported very low unemployment and extremely limited labour availability in rural areas, with processing factories 20% light on staff. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that fishing communities and processing sites have the necessary supply of workers?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I set out, the seasonal agricultural worker scheme is a huge opportunity for people to come to the United Kingdom to support the sector, but we need to make sure that we get the right people coming to support our economy. The last thing that we should do is erect a border between Scotland and the rest of the UK—that would be a tragedy for Scotland. I hope he will reflect on trying to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

I welcome the new Secretary of State and the new farming Minister to their places. The seasonal worker scheme is essential to the fruit sector in my constituency of Faversham and Mid Kent, so can my right hon. Friend assure me that it will be not only extended, but improved—and sooner rather than later—so that British consumers can continue to enjoy British fruit?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for rural businesses in Kent. I hope she will be aware that in December 2021 the seasonal worker visa route was extended to 2024. This visa route allows overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months each year to harvest edible and ornamental crops. In June, the Government announced that the food strategy will see the release of an extra 10,000 visas for the seasonal worker route, and this is something the Prime Minister committed to in the leadership election. We recognise the challenge, and we will do all we can to provide support.

Photo of Craig Williams Craig Williams Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I welcome the new Secretary of State and the Minister to their positions, and I look forward to working with them. A number of those at Montgomeryshire agricultural shows raised the issue of labour shortages, and while it is great to have record levels of unemployment in Montgomeryshire, we need people in our dairy farms, our abattoirs and across our food sector. Can I implore the Minister, if he is indeed enjoying a lamb dinner in Brecon and Radnorshire, to venture up to the other half of Powys and come to the biggest Welsh lamb market in the United Kingdom to talk about these important labour shortages and what we can do?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I realise what I have started here. Of course, I recognise the contribution that Welsh farmers are making. I think we should celebrate the fact that unemployment is so low, but in sectors such as the one my hon. Friend describes, that does bring its own challenges. We recognise such challenges, which is why we have the seasonal agricultural worker scheme, and we will be continuing to expand that as we negotiate with the Home Office to make sure the scheme works.