Labour Shortages

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 11th October 2021.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:30 pm, 11th October 2021

Before we begin, I advise Members that the Minister for the Economy has given notice that he is not available to respond to the debate. However, the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has agreed to respond to the debate on behalf of the Executive.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the impact that labour shortages are having in the agri-food and haulage sectors locally and in Britain; acknowledges that these sectors relied on EU labour; recognises that these labour shortages are a direct consequence of Brexit and the end to freedom of movement for EU workers; believes that the British Government need to act urgently to address labour shortages and enable EU citizens to come here to work and live; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to make clear to the British Government the significant impact labour shortages are having on the local economy and the need to rectify the situation.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

The motion notes with concern the impact that labour shortages are having, particularly on our agri-food sector, which relied greatly on workers from across the EU. The ending of freedom of movement, the outworking of Brexit and the British Government's post-Brexit immigration policies have created this situation. There is a need for the British Government to act urgently to address labour shortages and enable EU citizens to come here to work and live, and the motion calls for that and for the Economy Minister to make clear to the British Government the significant impact that labour shortages are having on our local economy and the need to rectify that situation.

Over 200,000 EU nationals left Britain in the past couple of years, so anyone who asserts that labour shortages are nothing to do with Brexit is like a child with their fingers in their ears and their eyes squeezed shut. They do not want to know. The anti-migrant, xenophobic, English nationalist motivation driving the post-referendum Brexit campaign resulted in EU nationals — people who had made their homes in Britain and locally and who were valued members of our communities — reporting an increase in hostility and racist incidents. It is also a matter of fact that the value of sterling plummeted after the referendum, so wages were worth relatively less in euros than before Brexit. Of course, this year, freedom of movement has ended, so those who wanted to remain in Britain or the North had to go through the bureaucracy of applying for settled status. It is blinkered, head-in-the-sand nonsense to assert that labour shortages are not because of Brexit but simply policy after Brexit, as the Agriculture Minister has done.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

No, I will not. I need to make some progress.

It is no surprise that the Minister would do so, being a champion and a cheerleader for the type of Brexit that has resulted in empty shelves and, in his own words, could see us in the bizarre situation of having food shortages in our shops and healthy animals in our own country being slaughtered on farms and not used for food production. That would be a ridiculous situation where we would try to import from other parts of the world at a higher cost because we have a labour shortage issue here. Nobody would want to take ownership of that, but it is ownership that he and his DUP colleagues, who aligned themselves with the most right-wing elements of the Tory Party to deliver a hard Brexit, must take. While the protocol mitigates some of the impacts of Brexit, one of those that it does not provide for is the loss of freedom of movement and, for us, the loss of the ability to have workers from across the EU come here to work, make their homes and add to the vibrancy of our communities. I, for one, find that sad.

If it were not incredulous enough that some would try to paint the labour shortages as nothing to do with Brexit, what is worse are those who suggest that there was a grand design to push up wages. Let us be very clear: if wages have increased in Britain, it is due to the simple economics of supply and demand. Shortages of workers have created a situation where employers are being forced to offer better pay, and, while that may represent a better outcome for workers in the short term, it does not fix the problem and is simply a short-term fix if it is not accompanied by protections for those workers' terms and conditions. It is a demonstrable fallacy that the Tories, or the DUP, for that matter, suddenly care about workers' rights. That is the most implausible of all the aspects of this sorry tale. We are talking about a party that has rolled back on trade union rights, limited strike action and saw Brexit as an opportunity to dismantle workers' protections. Nothing will convince me that any increase in wages, even if it is statistically the case that wages have increased, is anything other than consequential.

The British Government also have no intention of doing anything to solve the problems that they have created. The temporary visas for HGV drivers fall far short of the number and nature of interventions required. In a recent response to the Chair of the AERA Committee on the responses of various British Ministers to request actions to alleviate the labour shortages faced here, Minister Poots — I appreciate his being here to respond to the debate — outlined a shocking disregard. I use the word "shocking" somewhat advisedly because nothing really shocks us when it comes to Tory politicians' disregard for the North. The responses showed shocking disregard of the impact of the British Government's post-Brexit immigration policy on our economy. There was no flexibility in the seasonal agricultural workers pilot; there was no flexibility in the shortage occupations list; and there was no action at all to address the issues. Our economy and our very successful agri-food sector in particular are simply collateral damage in the delivery of a right-wing hard Brexit driven by jingoistic sentiments.

The DUP, and others, are responsible for delivering that Brexit and seem to be in denial about what is needed. We need to be honest about the cause of the problems we now face and that, in itself, delivers a solution: allowing EU citizens to come and work here again to help create a more successful and welcoming economy. We also need to focus on developing the skills to meet the needs of all sectors of our economy, including those that now have shortages. However, some of those are not short-term fixes. We need to do both, and one, of course, supports the other.

We also have the opportunity to take advantage of our trading arrangements under the protocol to bring investment and create jobs. Therefore, instead of focusing on ideology, all parties should work to deliver for citizens by creating a stronger economy.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP 3:45 pm, 11th October 2021

The Democratic Unionist Party understands the seriousness of the current labour shortages that are affecting the local agri-food and haulage sectors. I represent a rural constituency and have worked in that sector for over 20 years, so I fully recognise the importance of the sector to the Northern Ireland economy. It is valued at £5 billion and employs around 113,000 people.

The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) recently highlighted a similar labour crisis in the Irish Republic's pig sector. I am not aware that the Republic of Ireland has left the European Union. They are, obviously, experiencing some of the issues that we have here. That demonstrates that EEA free movement is not the answer that some in the House claim that it is. The Irish Farmers' Association, in the Irish Republic, has also expressed concern about the lack of suitable labour available for processing and on pig farms, and that is despite its continued membership of the EU and access to free movement.

Ironically, the same parties that are calling on those of us who oppose the protocol to focus on practical solutions would rather grandstand on that issue than get behind the clear and tangible asks that the Agriculture Minister has made to DEFRA and the Home Office. Those asks include relaxing the English language requirements of the points-based system for agri-food workers, speeding up processing times for agri-food visas, placing the butchery profession on the shortage occupation list, extra routes for temporary non-seasonal workers and expanding the sectors covered by the seasonal worker scheme.

The reality is that Brexit did not cause the current crisis; the new UK domestic immigration policy is the main catalyst. There is scope for change, and we will be making that case strongly. The DUP opposes key recommendations outlined in the report, which include the end of all specific work migration routes for low-skilled workers except seasonal and agricultural, rejecting a regional salary threshold and a shortage occupation list for Northern Ireland that is better suited to the needs of local sectors.

There have been sensational reports of over one million EEA workers leaving the UK. Those reports have, largely, been discredited. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics indicate that 200,000 is a more accurate figure. In truth, by the end of May 2021, there had been 5·6 million applications for settled status. If they wish, those workers can return to the UK when sectors lack the relevant skills or the terms and conditions do not incentivise those who qualify to come forward. Our immigration rules must be adaptable to ease the pressures that can build.

The coronavirus pandemic has not been mentioned — some people may have missed that — and, along with changes to the UK's immigration policy, that has impacted almost all parts of our economy and has manifested itself in various forms, including the shortage of HGV drivers. There have been recent claims that as many as 600,000 people in the UK currently have the necessary licences but are not active in that profession. Although the granting of emergency visas for 5,000 HGV drivers is welcome, it represents nothing more than a sticking plaster.

Members will be aware that the responsibility for testing HGV drivers falls to the Minister for Infrastructure, and she will have to look at what her Department can do to ease those problems. It is clear that those issues are not unique to Northern Ireland, with HGV driver shortages also being reported across Europe, including the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, the shortage is not a Brexit issue. Engagement on the terms and conditions for staff in the haulage industry will also be important.

The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre's (UUEPC) report, 'Northern Ireland Skills Barometer' anticipates that an estimated 800 new road transport drivers, including HGV drivers, will be needed every year in Northern Ireland up to 2028.

The Department for the Economy's Apprenticeships NI programme offers funded training to those aged between 16 and 24, who are interested in driving goods vehicles at levels 2 and 3. Work is currently under way to amend the age eligibility criteria for Apprenticeships NI frameworks, which will make them available to older apprentices. Both apprenticeship frameworks include knowledge-based and competence-based qualifications in driving a range of goods vehicles, including articulated vehicles.

There has been increased demand for workers in the hospitality sector across Northern Ireland, with a high level of vacancies in a number of occupations. Those workers include chefs, catering assistants, bartenders and waiting staff. Representatives of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association have said that the current disruption is down to a number of factors, including access to labour, COVID restrictions, and logistics and supply chains, which have been disrupted globally.

The Minister for the Economy is taking a number of measures to address shortages in the hospitality and tourism sector. It is important that the Department continues to support further education colleges and the skills focus programme, which offer bespoke training aimed at hospitality and tourism managers. Programmes such as the skills intervention programme and SKILL UP are also important to deliver a wide range —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

— of qualifications. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion from Sinn Féin. It would have been something of a surprise to Members had I not said that.

I am sometimes intrigued by the logic at work when people say that a labour shortage, particularly a shortage of workers from the EU 26, because, of course, the South of Ireland — the Republic — is not subject to the same restrictions on immigration as the rest of the EU, has nothing to do with Brexit. They also say that it is purely a policy choice by the UK Government and Ministers here, including the Minister — I welcome him to his place — who might say that that policy choice is not one they agree with.

How could they make that policy choice, and why have they made it? They made the choice to restrict — in fact, to end — freedom of movement from the EU because that was core to and inherent in the project of Brexit. That is undeniable. Let us stop that pretence. The reason we cannot bring EU workers to particular sectors to work here is because the UK left the European Union. It did not just leave the European Union but did so in a way that demanded from its perspective that it leave the single market and would no longer have freedom of movement. Let us just kill that silly argument.

It is true, as some have said, that there are broader, more global factors at work in terms of international labour crises. EU countries are also having issues with labour shortages and there are supply chain crises, but the truth is that it is worse in Britain, and I say Britain meaning Great Britain, because it has not only restricted its ability to bring in people from the EU to work but left the single market for goods, which, thankfully, we have not because we have some protections under the protocol.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

What does the Member say to the fact, which sometimes has a habit of getting in the way of the political line the Member wants to pursue, that the number of haulage drivers that Poland is short of is twice the figure of the EU? Poland is still in the EU, at least for now.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much. That does not really disprove the point that a lack of access to EU workers is still a problem for the UK economy. I acknowledge that there are labour issues in other countries, but they are more acute in Britain because Britain does not have access to a labour market of half a billion people. That is self-evident, and it has been said by many economists. I am happy to take the Member's point, but I do not quite understand what it is and I do not think it disproves anything that I have said.

It is clear that the labour crisis is causing real problems for particular sectors that are highly important to the Northern Ireland economy, most obviously the agri-food sector, as has been acknowledged by the Agriculture Minister himself. I welcome the fact that repeated letters have been sent not just by the Agriculture Minister but by his colleague the Economy Minister over some years now to try to convince the UK Government to adjust their policy on visas and access to labour from around the world and the EU. It is revealing, is it not, that they have not budged an inch? They have not moved at all despite the repeated requests of Ministers, particular Ministers from the DUP, to ease the rules. I wonder if those DUP Ministers might pause just for a second to reflect on whether the Brexit that they championed in the first place helped to create the consequences that they are now trying to undo and ameliorate.

I hear loud sighs from across the Chamber. I am sure that we will hear an insight from the Minister as to how he will tackle the labour crises.

It is important to say that, from my perspective, it is not simply about the economic impact of the loss of EU labour. That is critical for particular sectors, especially our agri-food sector, but it is critical for other sectors too. Yesterday, there were reports of the impending crisis — indeed, the current crisis — facing the health and social care sector in England because of the cuts in their access to healthcare workers from the continent. Proportionately, that is not as big a problem for Northern Ireland, because a smaller proportion of our NHS workforce comes from the continent, but it gives an insight into the extraordinary problems created by the UK's decision to end freedom of movement.

For me, the end of freedom of movement is not simply an economic problem; it is a societal tragedy. The ability to live and work across the European Union was an enormous benefit to not just workers in the economy but all of us: citizens, young people and the people whom we represent. It saddens me that, for young people from this society who, for whatever reason, are not able or do not want to avail themselves of EU citizenship via an Irish passport — there will be some who choose not to, because we are a plural society — those options are closed off now. They are closed off by decisions made by the British Government and supported by parties in the Chamber. That is a great tragedy for young British citizens and British passport holders from Northern Ireland, and I wish that they had not been left with that restriction on their rights.

I agree with the motion, but it is incumbent on me to say that I hold out little hope that the UK Government will do anything on the basis of requests and motions from the Chamber. They have shown that they care little about what is good for the Northern Ireland economy or what people in this Assembly or society say.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

The Ulster Unionist Party will not support the motion, not because we are blind to the fact that there is an issue but because we believe that the motion is too narrow and is, frankly, founded in ideological opportunism. I ask Members to remind themselves that that comes from a man who was totally against Brexit, who was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in 2016, who campaigned to remain and who warned of the negative consequences of leaving.

The fact is that our economy faces massive challenges and not just in skills and labour shortages. Last Friday, the Economy Committee had an urgent virtual briefing from the Utility Regulator on energy prices. It was frightening — frightening — particularly in the context of the loss of the £20 uplift in universal credit. How many of our fellow citizens are about to be plunged into poverty and be unable to afford their energy? We were told that one gas provider that has already had a massive hike in prices is about to ask for another rise before Christmas of 40%: four zero per cent. It is anticipated that Power NI will ask for something in the region of 15% to be put on electricity bills in the new year. That is not about labour shortages. It is about other factors: the pandemic; the production of raw materials, which is failing globally; a 250% increase in the cost of wholesale gas; and inflation.

Yes, we have labour shortages, but they are not all linked to the problems of Brexit, because there are skill shortages in continental Europe. Mr Allister has just made the point about haulage drivers in Poland. The leader of my party, Doug Beattie, and I recently travelled to meet some leading business people from the Republic of Ireland. They have skill shortages as well. Of course, they remain in the European Union with access to the EU 26 on the continent and free access around Britain and Ireland, yet they have shortages, and they look to us, our universities and our young people for the answers.

The motion calls on the Minister for the Economy to:

"make clear to the British Government the significant impact labour shortages are having on the local economy".

I really do not think that the UK Government are unaware of the issues that we face. What the Ulster Unionist Party calls for is for the Economy Minister to engage with the migration advisory committee (MAC) about the need for the MAC urgently to broaden the categories of shortage occupation lists so that we can accommodate more workers, particularly in agri-food and haulage. I say to Mr O'Toole, who mentioned the social care sector, that the migration advisory committee is looking at the social care sector and at how it can fill the gaps and labour shortages there.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 4:00 pm, 11th October 2021

I thank Mr Nesbitt for giving way. The motion calls on the Economy Minister to reaffirm the issue of labour shortages with the United Kingdom Government. While we all appreciate that they must know about them, because they see the effect day and daily on the rest of the United Kingdom, the main thrust of the motion is surely to emphasise that point and encourage them to do something about it.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. The final part of the motion certainly calls on the Government to rectify the situation. What I am saying is that I am giving you how it can be rectified, not just calling for it to be rectified: get the MAC to look at the issue.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I give way to the Chair of the Economy Committee.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

The British Government have already ignored the MAC's recommendations on the North.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for her point. Just because you do not succeed once does not mean that you should not try a second time.

We face a broader, deeper global problem. Recently, I listened to Miguel Patricio, the boss of Kraft Heinz — one of the biggest agri-food businesses in the United States — saying on the BBC that inflation is the problem across the board. The cost of ingredients such as cereals and oils has pushed global food prices to a 10-year high, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. That is a problem that we need to be focused on: the fact that the production costs of raw materials, ranging from crops to vegetable oils, are rising. Measures to control the pandemic, as well as illness, have limited output and delivery. That is a problem that we want to deal with. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that prices in the G20 group of major economies will grow faster than pre-pandemic for at least two more years. That is an issue that we should deal with.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not watching the clock. Sadly, we will not support the motion, because it is too narrow.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I support the motion. Again it seems to me that we are picking up the pieces of Brexit and the harm that it is doing to our economy. We hear increasingly about shortages of people, particularly in logistics and hospitality. We also face major shortages of healthcare staff and have been doing so for a number of years. There are those who say that the labour shortages that are affecting us affect the entire world. Global supply chains have been disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; there is no doubt about that. However, it appears that that has been compounded by the problems of Brexit in the United Kingdom to create an even more serious situation.

Many EU workers left the United Kingdom during the pandemic to go home. They also left because of a fall in demand for labour in many sectors. However, following the UK's departure from the EU at the start of this year and the end of freedom of movement, overnight a major source of workers for the United Kingdom has been cut off. While the pandemic has had its impact, Brexit has made it worse. I cannot help but note that petrol pumps are not running dry in France, Germany or many other parts of Europe. Luckily, in Northern Ireland, we have not seen those fuel shortages or, indeed, empty supermarket shelves to any great extent.

I believe that there is a general feeling across the Assembly that we should do something to tackle labour shortages.

Hospitality has been heavily impacted on, with reduced hours and the closure of restaurants, and, just as it is about to recover from the extreme challenges of COVID, we restrict the number of people who are available to work in the sector.

I am delighted that the Agriculture Minister is here. I recognise the support that he has given to that industry and how he has spoken about it. It is a major industry for us in Northern Ireland, and, without workers to pick and process crops, for example, we cannot continue to expand our successful agri-food business. Do not for one moment think that those are low-skilled, low-paid jobs: they are not. In many cases, they are highly skilled jobs. You only had to watch 'Countryfile' on TV last night to see that very point being made about the skills of seasonal workers coming into the United Kingdom. There was a little competition between a robot and human beings, and the human beings won hands down when it came to their ability to do the job.

Unfortunately, the United Kingdom Government response has been haphazard, saying that we need to create a high-skill, high-wage economy. That certainly does not happen overnight, and it certainly does not happen without investment in skills and training. How will it be delivered? Unfortunately, the Economy Minister is not here to answer such questions, but perhaps he has briefed the Agriculture Minister to deal with those points.

We also need to challenge the narrative that the workers from many EU countries who used to come to the United Kingdom were essentially low-skilled workers and cheap labour. For many years, people who came from EU countries to Northern Ireland made an invaluable contribution through an array of in-demand skills, across society and the economy, from working in the health service to working in the tech sector to making sure that we could get the goods in our shops that we required.

Economic isolation will not automatically deliver the high-skill, high-wage economy; in fact, there is a worrying indication that this winter may be the most financially stretching in decades for many families. Shortages of goods may only get worse, owing to shortages of workers in food processing and logistics, and that situation is now heightened by fuel costs. We are outside the club, so we cannot benefit from being in the club. We should remember that Germany, for example, is a highly productive economy with high wages, as are the Scandinavian countries, yet they have not isolated themselves in order to achieve that; rather, they have joined others to achieve it, delivering investment in skills and infrastructure.

The United Kingdom Government have made minor concessions on short visas for European workers, but it is not enough. In the context of shortages of workers elsewhere, why would EU workers leave their home country to come to the UK, where they will be given only a few short months before they are told to leave, when they have the potential to go to 26 other countries and enjoy greater rights and the ability to settle there permanently? We have major work to do to repair our international reputation as a welcoming place for workers. Of course we want a high-wage and high-skill economy that is productive, but, in order to achieve and deliver that, we have to invest in people and provide a proper social security net.

We also need to realise that, as we move from a fossil fuel-dependent economy to a clean, zero-carbon future, no one must be left behind. That is why the Alliance Party has produced its green new deal proposals to ensure training and support for everyone


Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Much of that task falls to the UK Government. The House's task today is to encourage our Economy and Agriculture Ministers to speak up for Northern Ireland. That is what the motion calls on us to do —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

— and that is why I express my disappointment that it —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

— will not find that support around the House.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

I share the surprise of my colleague Caoimhe Archibald that Edwin Poots and the DUP have had a road to Damascus moment and suddenly become champions of workers' rights. I welcome that seismic shift in DUP thinking, and I hope that they, finally, have seen the light. I hope that the DUP can follow up on its new-found socialist credentials by supporting Sinn Féin's continued calls for a living wage for all our workers: the hauliers, the carers, the supermarket workers and all the other professionals who have sustained us throughout the pandemic.

For me, the DUP position just does not add up. The legacy of 10 years of DUP Economy Ministers is one of misery. Wages in the North are the lowest across these islands, with over a quarter of our workers earning just £8·21 an hour.

In Britain, shortages of CO2 and haulage drivers have caused havoc with our food supplies and resulted in empty shelves in the supermarkets there. Our place in the single market has insulated us from some of those shortages but not all of them.

Let us not forget the root cause of the entire debacle: Brexit. It is the hard Brexit, championed by the DUP and the Tories, that has completely upended the flows of labour. We are totally cut off from a labour market of over 200 million because of Brexit. Brexit means that we no longer have access to vital EU funding, such as £50 million from the European Social Fund, which played a central role in training people up for the workforce.

I will give three examples that, to me, validate my apprehension about believing the new DUP position. First, when I recently challenged the Economy Minister on his failure to include 16- and 17-year-olds in the voucher scheme, his reply painted a very different picture from today's DUP position. He said that the voucher was not about the public but about businesses. Secondly, if the DUP is concerned about wages, why is Edwin Poots trying to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, an action that will cut the wage guarantee that keeps agricultural minimum pay rates above standard minimum wage rates? Thirdly, not only did the DUP campaign for Brexit but former Economy Minister Diane Dodds called for the salary threshold for EU workers who arrived in the North through the EU Settlement Scheme to be reduced. Actions speak louder than words.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

There is no doubt that the pandemic continues to cause many challenges in many sectors across the globe. In Northern Ireland, we face many challenges, including in our agri-food and haulage sectors, the two sectors that are specifically mentioned in the motion. Those two vital sectors have been an integral part of our economy for many years. Recently, people who were at the Balmoral show got a sample of our agri-food sector, saw the quality on show from producers and farmers and heard from those who sell their products here about what a great place this is to do business.

The issues in the haulage sector are not unique to Northern Ireland. HGV driver shortages are being reported across Europe, including in the Republic of Ireland. According to data collected by Transport Intelligence, Poland, which was mentioned earlier, was short of more than 120,000 drivers last year, and between 45,000 and 60,000 drivers were needed in Germany. As travel became increasingly restricted last year and large parts of the economy across the globe shut down, many drivers went home. Even today, haulage companies say that very few of those drivers have returned. Indeed, just 10 days ago, 'The Washington Post' reported the severe problems that the USA faces in its supply chain and the haulage challenges that it has through not having enough lorry drivers or warehouse workers, all of which are creating huge logistical challenges for the industry. Ultimately, those challenges are passed on to consumers.

There is also the issue of the haulage sector being seen as an ageing occupation and not attractive to young people. Haulage companies say that the average age of HGV drivers in the UK is 55. The companies want more to be done to attract younger workers, including an improvement in terms and conditions, better facilities for drivers and recognition that they are an integral part of the economy.

The pandemic also created a large backlog in HGV driver tests. It has been impossible to get enough drivers up and running. Indeed, the industry warned the Prime Minister in June that 25,000 fewer candidates passed their test in 2020 than in 2019. One practical solution to help to address the backlog in the number of local HGV driver tests was swiftly dismissed last week by our Infrastructure Minister. She was asked whether she would amend the trailer test requirements and bring them in line with those in GB, which would have helped to free up more examiners so that they could carry out HGV tests rather than small trailer tests. By amending the trailer test criteria in Great Britain, an additional 50,000 HGV lorry tests will be made available each year to support the industry and wider society.

There are also challenges from labour shortages in our agri-food sector, with shortages on farms and in meat processing plants. Many workers from the EU and the rest of the world returned home during the pandemic and did not return.

As was mentioned by my colleague — it is such an important point that it is worth repeating — just over two weeks ago, the Irish Farmers' Association in the Irish Republic expressed concern regarding the lack of suitable labour available at processing level and on pig farms. There is a backlog of animals on farms because processors do not have the workforce required to maintain the essential level of slaughter. There are also gaps in skilled butchery. Work has been undertaken by our AERA and Economy Ministers to address those issues. They are not interested in words; they are interested in action. They are taking real steps with the UK Government to look at things such as the immigration policy to ensure that Northern Ireland's economy does not suffer.

Work has also been undertaken to prioritise the speed of processing time for agri-food visas under tier 2 and to consider additional routes for temporary non-seasonal agricultural workers. It was clear from listening to the food processing industry just today that it has innovative options in terms of the English language requirement. That work needs to continue so that those workers can be trained up on the language during their time of employment. That could address the backlog. A considerable amount of work has also been done in our Economy Department. Its10X Economy skills strategy will help to ensure that our citizens and the business community have access to the modern and relevant skills that we all need. Representatives of the Food and Drink Association have said that the current disruption is down to a number of factors, including labour access, COVID restrictions, and logistics and supply chains —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:15 pm, 11th October 2021

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

— being disrupted.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion. I am sure that the Minister for the Economy and the Agriculture Minister will argue that the labour and skills shortages that we are suffering today are not simply the result of the Brexit that they and their party so strongly argued for and voted into place. If the Minister says that skills shortages already existed prior to Brexit, he will certainly have a point. Fourteen years of DUP leadership in the Department with responsibility for the economy has failed to provide the full range of skills that our labour market needs. Far too many of our highly skilled workers and many of our best-qualified students leave the North and never return. It must be stressed that that is made much worse by the dysfunctionality of the Government whom we have here. The failure of the two largest parties to move on from the past, and the lack of real leadership by those two parties over the past 14 years, has led in a significant way to the skills shortage.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sorry, I have a lot to get through, Keith.

We need a more positive and progressive Government to persuade more of our young people to stay here, to commit to their futures here, to rebuild our society here and to provide us with the skills that we need to expand our economy and increase the wages of all our people. Over the years, the Economy Committee has received a raft of reports outlining the skills shortages in our economy. They consistently point to skills deficiencies in key vocational areas. Just last week, the Economy Committee was briefed by the skills strategy advisory group. We were told that, over the past decade, investment in education and skills has fallen significantly. A recent assessment of Northern Ireland's competitiveness by Ulster University's Economic Policy Centre shows how that has affected our competitive performance, with several smaller advanced economies now outperforming us, such as Finland, Norway, Estonia, Ireland, Iceland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus and Luxembourg. The list goes on.

Why, after 14 years of DUP leadership of the economy Department, are we continuing to suffer serious skills shortages? Why have they got worse following Brexit? Is it possible that the DUP did not really understand or anticipate the full impact of its own Brexit? We now have a shortage of over 4,000 HGV drivers. We already had a shortage of more than 2,000 health workers prior to the pandemic. Since then, more EU 26 nationals have left our health service and other professions.

We also have severe skills and labour shortages in the construction and food processing sectors — in abattoirs, in butchery and on farms. To be blunt, it is a mess. The Economy Ministers of recent years have failed to anticipate the problems, failed to anticipate the impact of Brexit and failed to arrange the necessary increase in vocational skills, the shortage of which has been well known for years.

The North is suffering from not just the effects of Brexit and the particularly harsh form that it took, which was insisted upon by the DUP and its allies in the right wing of the Conservative Party, but the lack of capacity over recent years by the succession of DUP Economy Ministers to prepare our economy and labour market for the challenges that we are dealing with today. The SDLP certainly supports the motion.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union. That will become germane as I go on. We will not be supporting the motion. It is always a pleasure to listen to the Chair of the Economy Committee, but it is wrong to say that the shortages are a direct consequence of Brexit. To say that they are does much to undermine the view of what is happening in the global economy at the moment.

Before I continue, I take the opportunity to welcome the fact that 86,000 — I repeat, 86,000 — EU citizens have applied for leave to remain in our nation of the United Kingdom and to stay, particularly, in Northern Ireland. That should be not only a vote of confidence for the future of Northern Ireland but something that we should all welcome. Every Member will welcome those 86,000 new Northern Ireland citizens coming in and the great contribution that they are going to make to our fantastic country. Each Member will welcome not only the contribution that they have made but the contribution that such people will make for the next 100 years of Northern Ireland.

We have already heard figures, and we have heard about labour shortages in Poland, Germany, France and Italy, and all the rest of it. There are labour shortages across the globe. Let us concentrate on the EU. We have already heard about the shortfall of close to 124,000 haulage and logistics drivers in Poland, and we have heard that there is a shortage of 45,000 HGV and lorry drivers in Germany. There is a similar figure of around 45,000 in France, and, in Italy and Spain, there is a shortfall of 15,000. Furthermore, there is a shortage of 200,000 agriculture workers in France. Those are the EU's own statistics. They are not from some sort of Tory version of 'The Daily Telegraph' view of the world. It is clear that COVID has had a huge effect on the movement of labour across the whole of the European continent.

It would not be right of us not to point out the fact that many of our skilled migrant labour comes from outside Europe. I am talking about our workers who come from the Philippines in particular. The ability to attract those workers and to retain them is vital. We, as an Assembly, should be reaching out the hand of friendship to enable that to be done. I welcome Northern Ireland's being an open place for workers, and we need to do all that we can to improve the opportunities for workers in Northern Ireland.

I move on now to the issue that is really having an impact on the situation. I made my declaration as a member of the trade union Unite. It is clear to me that the terms and conditions for workers, particularly those in the haulage and agriculture sectors, are not what they should be.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I thank the Member for giving way on that point. I listened to the Member who spoke previously pontificate about everyone else and what they are not doing. However, her Minister, who is responsible for driving tests, whether they are lorry or trailer tests, has been very slow in bringing in a relaxation. The UK recognised that there is a shortage of drivers and is embarking on a journey to make the test procedure easier. However, her Minister dismissed the need for that and, indeed, gave no examples of shortages of drivers and said there is no requirement for such a measure here.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. HGV drivers and their licensing has been flagged up as an issue for some time. We knew we would have difficulties with that because of COVID, and it would have been apposite if the Infrastructure Minister had introduced such measures.

To slightly digress — of course, I have an extra minute — we are talking about trying to manoeuvre and move articulated lorries. One of my concerns is that a piece of legislation is being forced on us that means that people from GB may not be able to come to Northern Ireland to do that work. We need to seriously ask ourselves what we are looking at.

Very clearly, we need to get to the point where we have proper wages for our agricultural workers and those in the logistics industry. They need proper terms and conditions of service. We need to invest to make sure that we have everything, including truck stops, so that it is a much more attractive business. Those are the kinds of things we need to look at.

Finally, we should encourage everybody to seriously think about what we are doing to make Northern Ireland as attractive as possible for people to come to. We have seen the benefits that migrant labour brings to Northern Ireland's health service, our agriculture sector and, as my learned friend from Strangford said earlier, our cultural industries. Those are the things we have to do. Northern Ireland is a great place to come to and live in. We should encourage that.

I thank the Chair of the Economy Committee for tabling the motion, but I do not think we are in a position to support it.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

It was not difficult to predict the challenges that the agriculture and haulage sectors would face as a direct result of Brexit and that action would be required. As described by a number of Members, the significant challenge at present is a shortage of labour, which is impacting on many sectors of our economy and which has been significantly exacerbated by the ending of freedom of movement that came about because of Brexit.

The UK Government have failed to meet the needs or to answer the pleas of the meat and transport industries to access migrant workers. Just days ago, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told the Conservative Party conference that he would not return to uncontrolled immigration to solve fuel, gas or Christmas food crises, and he suggested that such strains were part of a period of post-Brexit adjustment. Instead, the UK Government have said that it is up to businesses to deal with the labour shortages and that they should raise pay and conditions to attract local workers. Progress on that is still awaited, and the waiting is proving costly.

The UK's exit from the EU has contributed to strains in supply chains and the labour force. It has stretched everything, including fuel deliveries, and could create food shortages ahead of Christmas. A recent report by the accountancy firm Grant Thornton concluded that there were almost one million job vacancies in the UK, half of which are in the food and drink sector. Those industries have relied heavily on an EU workforce input for the past 20 to 30 years.

Local business owners have told me that the chronic labour shortages have led to a crisis in supply chains here too, affecting a lengthening list of products. The Ulster Farmers' Union has said that the sector is desperate for staff, and according to recent figures across our food-processing industry, there is a shortfall of around 12% in the workforce. One large employer alone is struggling to fill hundreds of vacancies. Inevitably, labour shortages will push up the prices of local food products, and consumers in Northern Ireland could face a period of food price inflation.

According to a report from another accounting and professional services firm, the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), a significant number of agri-food firms are reporting difficulties that are to do with the rising cost of recruitment and Brexit, which could lead to a hike in costs.

Labour shortages could also lead to the additional issue of the slaughter of thousands of healthy pigs. Farmers in England have already been forced to kill animals to make space and ensure the continued welfare of their remaining livestock amid an ongoing shortage of workers at slaughterhouses. The National Pig Association said last week that up to 120,000 pigs might have to be culled on farms and not sold for pork meat because of a shortage of abattoir workers. Something needs to change.

Although we will do what we can through employability and skills work to address labour shortages locally, fundamentally, the answers and solutions have to lie with the UK Government. I call on them to take urgent action to ensure that the problems that are already being experienced do not get even worse as the winter progresses. The Prime Minister must stop dismissing the sector's concerns. The solutions are clear, and it is up to the UK Government to rectify the situation instead of finding further stumbling blocks and issuing new challenges. My Alliance colleagues and I support the motion.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 4:30 pm, 11th October 2021

I do not in any way gainsay the fact that there are obviously considerable shortages affecting various sectors in our economy, but I take issue with the deliberate and disingenuously opportunistic nature of the motion. When it says:

"recognises that these labour shortages are a direct consequence of Brexit", it spins a lie, a falsehood. I certainly will not accept the motion's invitation to endorse that lie.

There have been haulage shortages and HGV shortages across Europe for at least 15 years. Anyone who has read the transport intelligence report will know that the United Kingdom is in no worse a position than parallel countries in the EU that have not exited. Figures have already been given. In 2020, there was a shortage of 124,000 HGV drivers in Poland, at least 45,000 in Germany, 43,000 in France and a total of 400,000 across Europe. Yet, the motion, in pursuit of the obsession of its authors to blame everything on Brexit, tries to spin the notion that the shortages are a direct consequence of Brexit. They were there long before Brexit. They are in countries that have not exited. It is a fallacy and a concoction to say that they are the consequences of Brexit.

Statistics show that, before Brexit, there were 45,000 EU nationals driving HGVs in the United Kingdom. Since Brexit, that figure has fallen by only 3,000. There are still 42,000 EU nationals driving HGVs in the United Kingdom. It is clear that it is not Brexit that has stoked and caused the problem; it is a multiplicity of other issues, including low wages. Now, the chief advocate for a low-wage economy in the House is Sinn Féin. It wants to flood the market with cheap labour from the EU. Where are the socialist credentials of Sinn Féin when its answer to the problem is, "Get the cheapest labour that you can. Flood the market with cheap labour, exploit the cheap labour, and that will solve it"? That is Sinn Féin's answer. What an appalling situation from those who call themselves "socialists" and boast of their alleged socialist credentials.

It wants to help and assist the importation of the cheapest labour that it can find, instead of addressing the real causes of HGV driver shortages across the EU, such as the EU's own mobility package; the lack of infrastructure and facilities, particularly for female drivers, that should be there across Europe; and the low pay that contributes to all that.

In Northern Ireland, a contributor to HGV driver shortages is the protocol. I have talked to many drivers who say, "I have stopped going to GB because I do not know whether I will be held there for 24 hours waiting for paperwork. I do not know if my lorry will be called in when I get back because of the protocol." The protocol itself is an aggravator in this situation. I refute entirely the core contention of this opportunistic motion and throw it back to those who say, wrongly and disingenuously —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

It is just another basis upon which to take a hit at Brexit.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

It is important in this debate to discuss working conditions in those industries, because the motion does not refer to them even in passing. Like Mr Aiken, I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union. There is no doubt that the Tory-driven Brexit has had an impact on people's ability to work here, where they want to. Nefarious and nasty immigration policies that have been deployed by the Tories both before and after the referendum have made Britain a hostile place for many migrants and would-be migrants. However, to pretend that that is the sole reason for the crisis in some of those sectors would be not only fanciful but inaccurate. Anyone who speaks to workers and unions that represent HGV drivers in particular will know that some of these issues are at least 20 years in the making.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

It is the same old story of workers being ground down, disrespected, degraded and not paid enough. The working conditions for HGV drivers in particular are pretty gruelling, with workers being subjected to a driving down of terms and conditions in a race to the bottom in which all workers lose out but those who run major haulage companies rake it in, as per usual — the same as it ever was. We have a crisis where workers are not being recruited or retained. That has led to the major crisis that we all see on our TV screens. The average HGV driver is male and over 40 years of age. Most younger people with young families see the particularly long weeks of work, getting up in the middle of the night for work, and the terrible conditions, and say, "No thanks; that is not for me". Unfortunately, those problems are historical. Given that employment legislation is devolved here, I will be interested to hear what the Agriculture and Economy Ministers intend to do about those issues.

Unite the union has a drivers' manifesto. I encourage this Minister and the Economy Minister to look at it, read it and implement it. It states:

"Soft touch initiatives will do nothing to address the skills shortage in this vital industry, we must collectively not just look to how we can recruit new drivers but to change the industry to retain the ones we have and keep the new drivers we seek to recruit."

Of course, that is not to mention the problem with over-reliance on agency workers and bogus self-employment. The list goes on and on. If the Government did set industry-wide standards from which employers would not be allowed to diverge, it would benefit workers and keep more of them in place. Most workers, rightly, have access to lunch breaks and so forth, but when lorry drivers need to take a break, they often do not have somewhere to park to take a break. Lorry drivers rarely have a place to go to the toilet that is not the side of the road, and washing facilities are non-existent for most. We need to ensure that lorry drivers, like all workers, have some dignity and proper facilities in their workplace, wherever that may be from day to day.

It is quite remarkable that, for the first time ever — in my memory, certainly — the Tories are talking about supporting or improving pay and conditions for workers — HGV drivers — but only to get them over the current crisis, mind you. They have refused to tackle rogue employers and are now paying only lip service to improving conditions. I imagine that, if lorry drivers took action on the picket lines, there would not be a Tory in sight to support them, and they would be the first to lay into those essential workers.

We have to remember, however, that, in the current context, workers are in a powerful negotiating position to increase their pay and improve their terms and conditions. Workers in some companies have indicated that they are willing to take action. I stand behind any who choose to do so. The 'Financial Times' fears that the current situation could see a long-term trend that tilts the balance of negotiating power from capital towards labour.

That is exactly what we need to see happen for HGV drivers, agriculture workers and everybody else who has been ground down by employers attacking wages and conditions.

Agriculture workers and drivers are essential, but they are treated as disposable. Look at how many COVID outbreaks occurred in food plants. Those workers were largely forgotten about, but, without them, we would not have had food in our shops or on our tables. HGV drivers are essential workers and skilled workers, but they earn an average of £11·80 an hour. Without those drivers, our society would grind to a halt. People would not get their food or online deliveries. The question of extended hours is important, and health and safety must be paramount if the Government are considering pushing ahead with extending hours.

I disagree with the motion's analysis of why we are in this position, but I agree with the calls made in it. For that reason, I support it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots, to respond to the debate on behalf of the Minister for the Economy. The Minister will have 15 minutes.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Minister for the Economy and I are acutely aware of the labour shortages facing the agri-food and haulage sectors.

The debate has been remarkable, given what the parties that are doing most of the complaining have had to say previously. Before Brexit happened, we had all the predictions of great doom on the way: the economy would go into free fall, and unemployment would rise rapidly. Instead, the UK's economy is the fastest-growing of any region in Europe. With a fast-growing economy and, indeed, less migration taking place, which is a consequence of the open door that existed previously in the European Union, we face some issues with labour. That is not a really bad position to be in. As a young person growing up in the 1980s, I recall the grinding unemployment that existed. Over 20% of our people were unemployed, and needing workers is a much better problem to have to deal with than needing jobs. While there has been a general tightening in the labour market and shortages in a number of sectors, online job adverts in Northern Ireland were at an all-time high in August 2021, 52% above the normal monthly tally. The demand can be seen across the whole economy, and, combined with our relatively low unemployment rate, we will undoubtedly witness friction in the labour market for some time.

The COVID pandemic, along with changes to the UK's immigration policy, has impacted on almost all parts of our economy and manifested itself in various forms, including the labour shortages that we face. Over the past few months, the Department for the Economy and my Department have seen a surge in correspondence from concerned stakeholders who are experiencing significant operational problems as a result of labour shortages. The level of concern reported by stakeholders shows no sign of subsiding, and the Economy Minister and I continue to engage with industry and the UK Government with a view to ensuring that the Government's immigration policy reflects the needs of Northern Ireland's economy.

Information from industry suggests that there are staffing shortages of up to 35% in certain critical food-processing occupations. According to the labour force survey statistics, migrant workers made up 10% of the total employment in the agri-food sector in 2020, which was down from 20·6% in 2019. There is clearly a significant decrease that officials will continue to monitor. There is also a shortage of 60,000 to 76,000 drivers in the UK and, according to the Road Haulage Association, of 4,000 to 5,000 in Northern Ireland. It is important to recognise, however, that that is not only a Great Britain and Northern Ireland problem; for instance, issues around pay and poor working conditions mean that many EU countries face similar HGV driver shortages. The shortage across Europe is estimated at 400,000, with Poland requiring 124,000, Germany between 45,000 and 60,000 and France around 43,000.

Where is the superabundance of workers in the European Union to fill those roles that Members have indicated?

The motion tabled by Dr Archibald is worded in such a way that it presents the ruinous policy around Brexit as the cause of all of the problems, and it suggests that these problems exist only in the United Kingdom. Let us deal with the facts as opposed to Sinn Féin spin, of which we have certainly heard plenty today.

In Italy, there is an issue with getting grape pickers — that is not related to the United Kingdom, because not an awful lot of grapes grow here — and tomato pickers. Italy has a plenitude of tomatoes. Again, this is in Italy:

"Among the critical issues of this controversial commercial campaign are the difficulty in finding skilled and unskilled seasonal labor, even if we are talking about hires with regular contracts and union pay. As a result, personnel and transport costs have also risen, due to the shortage of truck drivers along the logistics chain. Transport is one of the main concerns".

The European Commission had said that the proportion of construction companies reporting that a lack of workers was limiting their activities hit a record 27% in its latest survey. The German Freight Forwarding and Logistics Association has warned of a shortage of more than 60,000 truck drivers and said that it expects that to increase by 15,000 a year. If you do not believe me, surely you will believe the European Commission when it says that.

In Ireland, that bastion of good — Sinn Féin thinks that everything is perfect there — the chairman of the IFA national pigs committee, Roy Gallie, is calling on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to fast-track work permit applications from outside the European Union. He said that the Irish:

"pig meat sector is under extreme pressure due to a lack of suitable labour at processing level and on farms".

Remarkably enough, we kill thousands of pigs from the Republic of Ireland every year and process them every week, yet those folks across the way would have us believe that all of the problems exist here and do not exist in the rest of Europe.

It is always good to see a fresh face coming into the Assembly. However, it all went so sour so quickly when the fresh-faced Member just regurgitated a speech written by back-room Sinn Féin staff that bore a resemblance not to factuality but to Sinn Féin's spin doctoring.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, certainly.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

You refer to the speech from the Member across the way. At one point, I was using my fingers and then my toes to count the DUP references, and then I had to stop. It is probably a good way to start: fill in "DUP" and just put words in between. I congratulate the Member opposite for promoting the party.

There has been negativity in today's debate. It has been about Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. I do not think that other Members have done their research on the issues that other countries have. Those issues are not down to Brexit. I am sure that the Minister will agree that COVID has been an issue. Workers have moved around different sectors. In Mid Ulster, there has been a pool of movement as workers moved from food processing to engineering. We need to get the Brexit notion out of people's heads and look at the real issues across Europe, not just in this part of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Sorry; I will respond to this intervention first.

I thank the Member for pointing out the reality that this is not purely about Brexit. The Members opposite have failed miserably in their attempts to spin this. In the Republic of Ireland, the Department responsible is conducting a review of non-EEA work permit systems. The mushroom sector is at breaking point when it comes to labour and continues to experience severe labour shortages. This is in the Republic of Ireland. There is a shortage of skilled, semi-skilled and manual labour for the sector, and that is having a serious effect on the efficiency of businesses and the subsequent viability of the sector.

I look forward to hearing some actual thoughts from this Member, instead of —.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Mr Poots, my response to what you said is that the speech was written by me. I noticed that — I can see your notes from across the Chamber — in contrast, you were reading notes from your officials. You clearly do not have a great understanding of them. You have given details of isolated incidents from countries around Europe. I particularly enjoyed the fact that, when you spoke about pigs coming from the South of Ireland, your notes had to have pictures of pigs to remind you of what parts you were talking about.

Your whole intervention has been ludicrous. Anything that you pointed out were isolated incidents. Again, I would like to remind you that, if you are going to bring up those points, please, at least, have examples that show some credibility and joined-up thinking.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I love the interventions, to be perfectly honest. So, a shortage of 400,000 drivers in the European Union is an isolated incident. Let us get real here. You have come out of schoolboy politics into the real world, and it does not stack up if you say that a shortage of 400,000 drivers is an isolated incident.

The Member mentioned the Agricultural Wages Board. For years, the Assembly has talked about dispensing with needless quangos, and this is a needless quango. We have a minimum wage, but, leaving that to one side, the wages in the agriculture sector are currently well above the minimum wage for most people, and demand is very high. Why do we need a body to say, "You need to give them this amount of wages" when people are earning bigger wages than that in the first instance? It is a relic of the past when agricultural wages were poor. Thankfully, that has gone, and, if the Member knew anything about agriculture, he would know that that is the case.

When it comes to Brexit and immigration policy, it is important to note that immigration has not ended. The ending of free movement of people allows the UK to determine who can work in the UK according to the needs of the economy. The points-based immigration system caters for skilled workers, students and a range of other specialist work routes, including routes for global leaders in their field and innovators from all over the world. However, I agree that the immigration system needs changes in order for it to work for Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Economy Minister and I have been making representations to the UK Government on the need for derogations for Northern Ireland. We need a shortage occupations list for Northern Ireland, a relaxation of the English language requirement and the flexibility that short-term visas can bring. It is welcome that the UK Government have announced that they will issue 5,000 temporary visas for HGV drivers and 5,500 visas for poultry workers in the run-up to Christmas, but it is clear that that is not enough and will not solve the wider labour supply issues that we face. That will be possible only with further changes to immigration policy.

I will turn to skills. The Home Office continues to promote the employment of the domestic workforce and investment in economic development and training as a solution to the UK's labour supply problems. While I support that aspiration, I also understand that, for the haulage and food sectors, that cannot be implemented immediately and a phased approach is more likely to succeed. I recognise that we have an assured skills academy and that, currently, HGV skills academies are being delivered by Belfast City Council and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, with a number of other councils seeking to use the model in order to offer their own HGV training. It would be really helpful if the Department for Infrastructure were able to move a bit faster to assist with examinations for HGV drivers.

I know that Ms McLaughlin, for example, wants to blame the DUP for the issues around skills. Again, she is relatively new to the Assembly, but she has been here long enough to understand that what she says has to bear up to facts. She talked about the DUP being in charge of skills for some 14 years. Well, the Department for Employment and Learning was responsible for skills until 2016 when it ceased to be, and that remit was transferred to the Department for the Economy. The DUP has had roughly two and a half years in the Department for the Economy since then because Sinn Féin thought that it was a good idea not to have an Assembly for three years. Prior to that, the Department for Employment and Learning was looked after by the SDLP in the first instance, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party. So, if there is a problem with what went on in the past, she will find that it exists with her party and two other parties, but not the Democratic Unionist Party in that instance.

I can assure all Members that, while immigration is an excepted matter, the Economy Minister and I will continue to press the UK Government to introduce the changes that we need in order for immigration policy to work for the Northern Ireland economy. More broadly, in order to modernise our skills system, a consultation on a new skills strategy, Skills for a 10X Economy, concluded in mid-August, and officials are working across government and with key stakeholders to develop the final strategy, which reflects consultation responses.

When complete, Skills for a 10X Economy will help to ensure that Northern Ireland's citizens and business community have access to the modern, economically active and relevant skills that will empower them to reach their full potential, improving Northern Ireland's competitiveness on a global stage.

I would like to make it clear that the Economy Minister and I welcome the contribution that migrants from the EU and further afield have made, and will continue to make, to the economy and to wider society. I am delighted that so many EU nationals have applied to the EU Settlement Scheme in Northern Ireland and that they will continue to be based here.

I conclude by saying that, when it comes to all of this, not being in the European Union gives us a solution that the Republic of Ireland, Italy and others do not have. We can go to the world market to address the labour shortages that have been identified. Although I am totally opposed to uncontrolled immigration, which is one of the reasons that I supported Brexit —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

— I am very happy to support immigration on the basis of need.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to make a winding-up speech. I will briefly go through some Members' contributions, and then I will make my own contribution.

I will start with remarks from my colleague the Chair of the Economy Committee, Caoimhe Archibald. She highlighted the fact that people are here to work but are also here to make a life and be part of our communities. Caoimhe also made the point that nothing shocks us any more when it comes to the Tories' disregard for the North. Our agri-food sector cannot be used as collateral damage when it comes to Brexit. Caoimhe also mentioned the importance of skills development for all sectors, not just agri-food.

Keith Buchanan from the DUP obviously spoke of his opposition to the motion. He spoke of some measures that the Agriculture and Economy Ministers have taken to tackle the issue, but if we do not have the people here, those measures are kind of redundant.

Matthew O'Toole from the SDLP described it as a "silly argument" to say that the labour shortage is not as a result of Brexit. I find myself agreeing with Matthew. He questioned the attitude of the British Government to successive letters sent by DUP Ministers, and he described the issue as a "societal tragedy" rather than just an economic problem.

Mike Nesbitt outlined his opposition to the motion, due to the wording being "too narrow".

Stewart Dickson supported the motion on behalf of the Alliance Party. He said that we should not be picking up the pieces of Brexit. That is what is happening, however, because a major source of workforce was cut off from the North overnight. He mentioned the impact on hospitality, and Sinead McLaughlin mentioned the impact on the construction sector, so the impact is not just on the agri-food sector. Stewart highlighted the fact that the impact on the hospitality industry is that just as that industry is beginning to recover, it is being restricted by the number of workers who are available.

Stewart also said that there is no competition between robots and humans. I can back that up with a small example. I got my car washed by a robot on Friday night, and I can assure you that it was nothing compared to what the fellas at the car wash used to do. That is just a small example of the impact that this could have. Stewart also said that, to achieve the high-wage, high-skills economy that we all want, we need to invest in our people. He reiterated calls on the Economy and Agriculture Ministers to speak up for the North.

My colleague Pádraig Delargy said that the DUP position does not add up and that, as a result of Brexit, we are in a position where we may no longer have access to EU funding, some of which was used to train people up for those jobs. He said that actions speak louder than words and used three examples, one of which was that he asked the Economy Minister to extend the Spend Local card to 16- and 17-year-olds but that call has been repeatedly rejected.

Stephen Dunne focused on issues faced by the haulage industry and said that the Economy and Agriculture Ministers are interested in action rather than words. I look forward to that action.

Sinead McLaughlin supported the motion on behalf of the SDLP. She pointed out the failure of the DUP and the Department for the Economy. She said that investment in education and skills has decreased over the past 10 years and questioned the DUP's understanding of the impact of the Brexit that they championed. She described it as "a mess", and I agree with that.

Steve Aiken does not support the motion. He says that 86,000 EU citizens applied to remain in the North and that they should be welcomed. We welcome them with open arms.

He described the benefits that migrant labour brings, and nobody disputes those. I find myself agreeing with Steve, which does not always happen. He said we need to improve opportunities for workers, as well as their terms and conditions, because they are not as they should be.

John Blair said that the situation is a direct result of Brexit. That is true. The UFU says that the sector is desperate, and one employer alone has hundreds of vacancies to fill. The labour shortage has resulted in price hikes and animal culls.

Jim Allister, obviously, does not support the motion, and he does not blame Brexit. I must point out that Sinn Féin wants a living wage for all workers. We do not want cheap labour. Had Jim listened to my colleague, he would know that our living wage campaign was mentioned. However, I agree with Jim that there is a lack of facilities for women drivers. At the Finance Committee a couple of weeks ago, we had a briefing about that. Funnily enough, Jim said that the protocol is an aggravator, and it is, but where did it come from? It came from Brexit, so you just answered your own question there, Jim.

Gerry Carroll shares my concerns on terms and conditions —.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

No, I want to get through this, thanks. Gerry Carroll shares my concerns about terms and conditions for workers, and he, too, focused on HGV drivers.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Yes, go on ahead.


Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

It is her choice.

Does the Member agree that it is very concerning, inaccurate and dangerous to suggest that workers coming from Europe or elsewhere in the world have a role in driving down wages? Workers do not drive down wages; nefarious, chancer employers do that.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Yes, I completely agree with that. Gerry also spoke of the COVID outbreaks in food factories and how the workers were forgotten about. I represent Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where we have a number of food factories, and that was the case there. I heard that from several people. Gerry supports the motion.

I must say I was so disheartened by the way the Minister spoke. I found him using bully-boy tactics, attacking younger Members, newer Members and those who are not experienced. How do you expect people to come into the Chamber when you are going to treat them like that, just because you have been here for, oh, however long? I find that really disappointing. The fact that a Minister talks to MLAs like that is so disheartening. I lost concentration during your contribution because of the way that you spoke to Sinead and Pádraig. It really disappointed me. I will leave it at that. You said that you do not think we are in a bad position and that we think everything is perfect in the Twenty-six Counties. No, we do not, but we see that the solution to fixing the problems is a united Ireland.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for taking an intervention, and I concur with her comments about the AERA Minister. He gave a number of examples of labour shortages, but he did not take an intervention from me, when I would have made the point that we do not see empty shelves across Europe. We see them in Britain as a direct result of labour shortages because of Brexit. A point was made about workers' terms and conditions. I imagine that we would all concur with thinking they are too poor. We would like to see the Economy Minister meet the New Decade, New Approach obligations on employment and workers' rights. Perhaps he could put a wee bit of pressure on his Executive colleagues.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. She says that she and her party see the solution to the difficulties that we have in Northern Ireland to be what she calls a "united Ireland". How will that be paid for, given that, prior to COVID, the Republic of Ireland Government could not meet their commitments to the European Union, never mind to the World Bank?

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

We have spoken about this. It will be a new and united Ireland. There are economic documents on it, and I can provide you with one if you want.

Those are my remarks on the debate, and I will add a couple as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on workers' rights. As I said, Brexit has resulted in skilled EU workers leaving the North through the British Government's reckless decision to end freedom of movement. That is the hard Brexit championed by the DUP, which Boris Johnson is now trying to sell as a plan. He says the shortages are all part of the move to a high-wage economy. The truth is that Boris is a man without a plan. He and his Brexiteers have no idea what they are doing or where the disastrous hard Brexit is going to go next. When it comes to the North, the fact is that they do not even care.

However, notable points have come out of this. I am relieved that we are finally beginning to realise the importance and value of our low-skilled workers. Without the workers in our agri-food sector, we would not be able to compete on the world stage with our high-quality and award-winning produce, which is what we are experiencing now. If those workers are so vital to our economy, why were they never treated as such?

Sinn Féin has a strong track record of protecting workers and their rights across this island. I am lobbying for the introduction of a pilot scheme for a four-day working week. I also have a private Member's Bill in progress that would abolish zero-hours contracts.

Colleagues are progressing private Members' Bills and campaigning on a living wage, the right to disconnect and outlawing bogus self-employment, to name a few.

I welcome the DUP's conversion to being champions of workers' rights. They have never been in support of comprehensive and far-reaching legislation to support rights and fair pay for workers. As my colleague Pádraig Delargy MLA pointed out and I think it is important to repeat, 10 years of DUP Economy Ministers have resulted in wages in the North being the lowest across these islands. Maybe with this realisation, workers and their families may actually begin to get a break. As Sinn Féin spokesperson on employment and workers' rights, I certainly hope so.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 48; Noes 37


Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Miss Woods

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Delargy, Ms Kimmins


Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mrs Barton, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells

Tellers for the Noes: Mr K Buchanan, Mr Clarke

Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes with concern the impact that labour shortages are having in the agri-food and haulage sectors locally and in Britain; acknowledges that these sectors relied on EU labour; recognises that these labour shortages are a direct consequence of Brexit and the end to freedom of movement for EU workers; believes that the British Government need to act urgently to address labour shortages and enable EU citizens to come here to work and live; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to make clear to the British Government the significant impact labour shortages are having on the local economy and the need to rectify the situation.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank everybody for their participation in the debate.

Adjourned at 5.27 pm.