A senior Conservative MP has warned Brexit is “destroying” British agriculture, as he condemned a government minister for failing to act.
A furious Neil Parish laid into Kevin Foster, the immigration minister, for ignoring a recommendation to make it easier to bring in EU butchers and other workers – leading to a huge shortage.
The chair of the Commons Environment Committee warned that planting of vegetables was down 25 per cent and poultry production by 12.5 per cent, since Brexit.
“We are seeing our industry slowly being destroyed,” Mr Parish told the minister – demanding to know why the migration advisory committee’s call for farm workers to be placed on the shortage list was rejected.
“I thought Brexit was about encouraging production in this country, not discouraging it. This is down to labour shortages.”
Mr Parish accused the minister of claiming “it’s no problem, it wasn’t our problem” adding: “It is, I’m sorry minister.”
But Mr Foster hit back, arguing there was a “problem with uptake” and blaming employers for failing to sign up to a visa scheme to bring in workers.
Warnings of farm labour shortages have raged for months, after Brexit slammed the door on the ability of EU nationals to move to the UK and work freely.
In October, ministers performed a U-turn by allowing 800 butchers and 5,500 poultry workers to enter the UK on short-term visas – having rejected putting them on the shortage list, to ease entry.
But Mr Foster admitted the number of butchers actually in place is under 100 – after the farm industry protested at the cost and bureaucracy of the visa system.
He criticised companies that have failed to apply to sponsor visas, telling the committee: “They could be used immediately if people wanted to do so.”
But Sheryll Murray, a fellow Tory committee member, told the minister: “We are seeing pigs slaughtered on the farm because of your slow process.”
The criticism came as a coalition of agriculture groups attacked “short-term fixes” that were failing to find a long-term solution to the supply crisis.
Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association (NPA), said: “The UK pig sector is still in meltdown as worker shortages continue to impact our ability to process the number of pigs we already have on farms.”
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) demanded a commitment to avoid Britain’s self-sufficiency in food production falling from the current 60 per cent.
“Britain’s farmers are world-leaders in producing climate friendly food and, over the past 18 months, have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full despite many being impacted by severe supply chain issues, particularly worker shortages,” said Minette Batters, the NFU president.
“Government has tried to paper over the cracks with short-term fixes but, if we want to avoid this crisis continuing, long-term solutions are urgently needed.”