It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Walker.
I congratulate Derek Thomas on securing this debate; he demonstrated that he has a passion for this issue. Although I am not the shadow spokesperson for fishing and farming, I think it is really important that he has raised this issue, which includes the future of fishing and farming, for debate today. This debate is particularly important because across the sector there are serious skill shortages that must be addressed if the success of the industry is to be maintained.
I will start by highlighting the situation in the UK food and drink manufacturing industry, which has up to 400,000 direct employees in roles ranging from sales and marketing to supply chain and logistics, and from production management to engineering. This industry has enormous potential as a high-value manufacturing sector, using innovative technologies in engineering, digital and life sciences to meet all the challenges of managing future food supplies and contributing to the wider carbon reduction agenda. That potential is being put at risk.
The Food and Drink Federation has highlighted that by 2024 more than a third of the sector’s workforce will have retired and 130,000 new recruits will be needed to fill the looming skills gap. A recent survey by the federation revealed that the top five skills gaps in the sector were in engineering, food science and technology, innovation, including product and process development, leadership and management, and customer service management. Although the ageing workforce and the skills gap are not new, the need to close the gap has become more urgent because, as in the rest of the agri-food supply chain, food and drink manufacturers currently benefit from bringing in skilled labour from the EU, which represents 29% of their workforce—120,000 workers. A high number of these workers carry out vital production, technical and specialist roles. Post-Brexit, the industry expects there to be restrictions on accessing non-UK EU workers, which will only intensify the skills gap.
To address the problem, the industry wants to see co-ordinated careers action and a more strategic approach to engagement with schools, to encourage home-grown talent for the long term. The Food and Drink Federation is also asking for technical education reforms, including with the institutes of technology, as the proposed T-levels fall short for the food and drink industry. The federation hopes to fulfil its pledge to increase the proportion of the workforce in food and drink manufacturing who are on apprenticeships to 3%—from the current 1%—by 2020, and to tackle market failures such as the fragmented apprenticeship provision for the sector and the lack of new standards at level 4 and above. I hope sincerely that the Minister will commit to addressing those issues with his appropriate colleagues in the relevant Departments as a matter of priority.
Some 11% of workers in the sector are employed in agriculture, with a high dependence on people from outside the UK. Up to 80,000 workers come to the UK every year to pick fruit and vegetables, 98% of them from the EU. In my own region—the north-east—farmers have told me that they rely on workers from abroad not only for seasonal jobs but to work on their farms throughout the year. Although it is important that young people are encouraged to take up careers in agriculture, the uncertainty in the agricultural and horticultural sectors about their workforce post-Brexit means that there is a need for urgent assurance from the Government. Farmers need the certainty of a good stream of seasonal workers, so if the Government will not give in to pressure to reintroduce the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—SAWS—will the Minister say exactly what measures are being put in place to encourage local people to fill the jobs?
Will the Government support schemes such as wheels to work, which helps young people in particular to access jobs in rural areas when there is no public transport? Finally, how much resource have the Government invested in plugging the gap left by the removal of SAWS? As food and farming accounts for 13.6% of the total workforce in employment, I hope that the Minister can fully address all the issues raised in the debate.