Labour shortages in the food supply chain: letter to UK Farming Minister

Letter from the Rural Affairs Secretary to the UK Government urging working together on an immigration policy that supports the food and drink sector.

To The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries

From Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands

Dear Mark

Independent UK review of labour shortages in the food supply chain

I am writing in light of the 30 June 2023 publication of the UK independent review about labour shortages in the food supply chain. While its scope is limited to England only, Scottish Ministers have noted this review and await the UK Government’s formal response to it with interest. As you will be aware, I have written repeatedly to the UK Government to urge you to provide more support to the sector to address the cumulative issues that have been impacting on it, including cost increases and labour and skills shortages, given that you hold the levers to do that.

This builds on the report of our Short-life Food Security and Supply Taskforce, that I set up together with industry in March 2022 in the immediate wake of the Ukraine conflict, to monitor potential disruption to the food and drink supply chain. One of the Taskforce recommendations was consistent with calls already made by Scottish Ministers and industry, for the UK Government to make emergency changes to the UK immigration system to combat acute post Brexit labour shortages, exacerbated by the pandemic. The long-lasting effects of Brexit have contributed significantly, for example, to workforce and retention issues for the food sector, and others. Many EU citizens have left the UK with a resultant loss of skills that cannot be quickly and easily replaced.

We note that your Government’s formal response to this independent review is expected in the autumn, and without knowing how you intend to respond it is difficult to assess whether any proposals will address significant labour shortage issues impacting across the sector in Scotland. We need to have a workable UK immigration system that is fit for all sectors, including the food and drink industry, and tailored to the needs of our economy, public services and communities. In that respect, it is disappointing that the independent review focuses on England only, as our view is that UK immigration policies cannot be implemented without a full understanding of the specific needs of our remote rural and island communities, for example, and of the needs of the devolved nations more generally.

It is my firm view that this review presents us with a watershed moment to work together constructively to redouble our efforts to support the sector. And so, I urge the UK Government to take a collaborative and evidence based approach to its response, including engaging early with the devolved governments to ensure that any policies taken forward, in light of the review, might be tailored in such a way to benefit all of the UK. Quite simply, our door is open and we are keen to work on labour and immigration policy areas which, as the industry has already highlighted to the UK Government, would make a key difference to the food and agricultural sector confidence, sustainability and security.

I would appreciate an early response to this letter and it would be helpful too if the UK Government’s handling plans for its response to the review could be discussed at a future EFRA portfolio Inter-Ministerial Group meeting.

I am copying this letter to Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice; Neil Gray MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy; Emma Roddick MSP, Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees; Thérèse Coffey MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Robert Jenrick MP, Minister of State for Immigration; Vaughan Gething, Minister for the Economy; Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales and Trefnydd in the Welsh Government; and to the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. 

Yours sincerely

Mairi Gougeon

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