Farming opinion: Securing access to labour must be priority, however we leave the EU

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tanant Farmers Association

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tanant Farmers Association - Credit: Archant

No one can provide an indication of the next step on our journey to a post Brexit future.

Jean-Claude Juncker, described Theresa May's approach as 'nebulous' Picture: XINHUA NEWS AGENCY/PA I

Jean-Claude Juncker, described Theresa May's approach as 'nebulous' Picture: XINHUA NEWS AGENCY/PA IMAGES - Credit: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Chief amongst the confused is our own beleaguered prime minister who denied the House of Commons a meaningful vote on her previously agreed Brexit deal in the hope that she could secure some further wriggle room from her European counterparts before giving MPs another bite at the cherry.

Sadly, she has returned empty handed from the recent meeting of EU Heads of State and has also run into a bit of bother with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker who described her approach as “nebulous”.

No surprise then that there is a greater degree of planning, both within government and industry, for the prospect of leaving the European Union at the end of March without a deal.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) used its convening power within the food and farming sector to bring together representatives from right across the supply chain at a specially arranged “no deal” seminar in London earlier this month. This provided an opportunity to look at the challenges and opportunities that would be provided by a ‘no deal’ solution to our exit from the European Union and what, if any, mitigating factors could be employed to assist with any difficulties which may arise.

No surprise, perhaps, that by the end of the day there were more issues in the challenge’s column, than in opportunities and chief among those, echoed throughout the supply chain, were concerns about access to labour.

There is no getting away from the reality of the situation that much of our food and farming sector relies upon non-UK born labour coming principally from Eastern European countries of the EU. Whether you look at seasonal labour in the horticultural sector, workers in abattoirs, lorry drivers in the haulage sector, workers in food processing and farm labour in pig, poultry and dairy units, we face a potential, serious labour deficit. In fact, many businesses that have had significant reliance upon EU labour are already reporting shortages and an understandable concern about how many workers will return to their jobs after the Christmas and New Year holidays when they have spent some time in their home countries.

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Surely, we are told, the solution is straightforward. Simply exchange the EU labour with UK born labour. That would be a simple and straightforward solution if it was available, however sadly it is not. The UK labour market is in virtual full employment. The Office for National Statistics estimates that there are around 848,000 advertised job vacancies in the UK s against the lowest number of individuals claiming jobseekers allowance since before the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. Couple that with a strong lack of desire amongst UK born workers to seek employment in the food and farming sectors, there is not only a huge economic hurdle to overcome but a cultural one too.

The report of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) issued in September, after a year of waiting, has done nothing to assist. It concluded that industries, such as agriculture and food processing, had been fortunate to have had a supply of non-UK born labour and now it really had to look to the domestic market and simply pay more. The MAC concluded that only highly skilled workers earning at least £30,000 each should be given visas to work in the UK. It is alarming that such a considered body should come to such a naïve conclusion. We should not be discriminating based on skills which is divisive, rather, we should be carrying out our labour assessments based on need. Securing our access to the labour we need within the food and farming supply chain must be a priority for us all regardless of how we leave the European Union.

The Tenant Farmers’ Association will be holding an evening meeting on Thursday, January 17, starting at 7:30pm at Quy Mill, Sow-Cum-Quy, Cambridge CB25 9AF. TFA chief executive, George Dunn. will be looking at post Brexit policy for agriculture and the tenanted sector. The event is being supported by Barclays who will also be providing a speaker looking at managing volatility, building business resilience and planning for the future. To book a place, contact Julia Meadows on (0118) 930 6130 or email