Ministers ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ over farm labour crisis

Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of “standing idly by while Rome burns” over its handling of the labour crisis engulfing the food and farming sector.

Neil Parish, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee, said the industry had been telling government since early this year about labour shortages that have caused supply difficulties.

Despite measures introduced by ministers, such as temporary visas for overseas butchers and poultry workers, stakeholders say the response has been “too little, too late”, he added.

See also: Survey responses needed to help assess farm labour shortages

During an Efra committee hearing in parliament this week, MPs raised concerns that the UK government was also not taking steps to ensure there will be enough temporary farmworkers in the UK to harvest fruit and vegetable crops next year.

‘Close for good’

The NFU is urging Defra to expand its Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) from 30,000 visas this year to 60,000 for 2022 to avoid a farm labour crisis. Otherwise, it warns many horticulture businesses will close for good.

MPs accused Defra secretary George Eustice and his department and the Home Office of a “lackadaisical” response to the farm labour crisis.

But Mr Eustice hit back saying Defra had extended the number of SWP visas to 30,000 this year, expecting returning EU workers to make up the shortfall and double this number.

The government had also announced a temporary visa scheme for foreign lorry drivers, poultry workers and pork butchers.

Covid exodus

He explained, however, that since Covid, about 1.5 million European citizens with settled status had left the UK and returned home to stay with their families.

Conservative MP Derek Thomas (St Ives) said farmers were “screaming at us” for government to commit to a longer-term scheme in January to allow businesses to plan.

Mr Thomas said farmers want the SWP extended to nine months and to include ornamentals amid concerns that millions of daffodil blooms will be left to rot again.

Mr Eustice said Defra was in “constructive dialogue” with the Home Office and he expected an announcement before Christmas.

MPs asked Mr Eustice if Defra had a plan to replace foreign labour with home-grown labour. He admitted that more must be done to attract more young people into careers in agriculture, but insisted that the government was putting a “huge amount of work” into apprenticeships.

Mr Parish said the government had set out a Brexit agenda of “taking back control” and producing more food. But by not hiring enough labour, it was “exporting our industry” and more food imports will be needed.

Mr Eustice said home secretary Priti Patel had said “many times” she was interested in doing a study of the labour market “in the round”.

Mr Parish stormed: “But is Rome not burning now? How much more needs to burn before you’ll put some sort of plan together?”

Conservative MP Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall), said farmers told her Defra “needs to come up with a lot more planning, rather than just looking at pilots and holding meetings”. She told Mr Eustice: “I’m sorry. It’s not good enough.”