President's Blog - 14 January 2019

We are facing a ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’ Brexit or some fudge in-between writes NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick.

I have no foresight on it and a crystal ball may be as good as anything.
There is one certainty that I can highlight - a “known known”.  

‘Deal’ or ‘no deal’, Scotland and the UK are getting thrown into a meltdown situation as far as labour is concerned. Unquestionably, the obvious sectors that will feel it first will be fruit, veg and horticulture, requiring approximately 10,000 people per year in Scotland alone.

Remember, these productive, innovative sectors are responsible for 10% of Scotland’s entire agricultural output, despite only occupying 0.6% of Scotland’s utilisable agricultural area.

It is much bigger than that though.  The largest manufacturing sector in the UK is food processing and a big part of their labour is non-UK – more than 50% in the red meat sector; more than 90% of vets in approved meat establishments; upwards of 30% of the permanent staff in the dairy sector and 40% of staff in egg production (both temporary and permanent).  

Huge numbers of lorries on our roads are driven by non-UK drivers (60,000 approx.) and the retail sector requires large numbers of non-UK staff within their supply chains, both shop front and behind doors.

These are just a few examples of our reliance on non-UK staff without venturing into the catering and service sectors.

What is obvious to me is that from field to fork, we are very reliant on a supply of competent non-UK labour that is properly paid. Our wage laws in the UK do not allow “cheap labour”.

The Migration Advisory Committee report claims that it is “conditions” that are preventing the labour being sourced locally which is contrary to the evidence we and others submitted to it.

Already the uncertainty around Brexit is causing a shortfall, leaving fruit and veg unharvested in Scotland last year.

Our Horticulture and Specialist Crops Committee Chair, James Porter, has contacted labour suppliers and is being told that we are already struggling to meet early demand in the very South West of Britain.

This does not bode well for Scottish needs, or for the UK. These people are essential to make the greater economy work including agriculture. They also contribute to tax-take from their wages and spend in the local economy.  

The UK Government is implementing a pilot Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme which will allow temporary visas for up to 2,500 non-EU nationals to work in the sector through the Brexit transition period in 2019 and 2020. But worker shortages in 2018 were estimated to be at around 10,000. So even if we get a deal with the EU, we certainly need a commitment to quickly ramp up the pilot scheme for seasonal workers to no less than 10,000 people.

Even more worryingly, in a ‘no deal’ scenario there would be no transition so the free movement of people would stop immediately. We need the UK Government to give a strong policy statement on how they are going to fill that void of approx. 60,000 – 70,000 seasonal workers UK-wide that would immediately be created in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

And that is purely a void of seasonal workers – the uncertainty that would also be levied on workers in permanent positions would be considerable, and with nothing in place to allow for staff turnover, we could be facing exponential damage right up and down the supply chain.

Not only this, there is an imperative to have a policy on migratory labour, on-farm, off-farm, seasonal and longer term immediately. The UK Government’s White Paper on future Immigration, published before Christmas, doesn’t deliver this. Again, the White Paper also offers no assurances on what UK Government would do to ensure labour demands are met in a cliff-edge ‘no deal’ scenario. Industry needs a clear statement from UK Government.

NFU Scotland recently responded to a UK Government consultation on the Shortage Occupations List which again I believe is dismissive of our need.

The consultation asked us to demonstrate why this “shortage cannot be filled from the domestic labour market”? My response to this is, why else would these people be here in their thousands?

For the UK Government to insist that any non-UK national coming to work in the UK is “skilled to a level set by the Home Office” is an arbitrary, subjective and meaningless statement.  It is a skill to pick fruit correctly or to be a herdsman on a dairy unit, but that doesn’t necessarily need an academic qualification.

Similarly, the consultation asked us to ‘Demonstrate a need for labour from outside the EEA’.

It doesn’t matter where the labour comes from -- we need it ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’.

Government is hiding behind the meagre allowance on the SAWS pilot scheme of 2,500 people from outside the EU. This figure is pitiful in the face of a no deal, and just tinkering at the edge of the amount of EU citizens that will not be coming through the uncertainty that currently exists even with a deal during transition, all this being exacerbated by currency exchange rates.

Our UK, our Scottish and our rural economies needs a supply of plentiful and competent labour for it to work.

When we established a priority list immediately after the Brexit vote, labour requirements sat alongside the need for trade, policy and support.

We cannot feed our nation without this labour.

Author: Andrew McCornick

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About The Author

Andrew McCornick

Andrew, who is married with three sons and a daughter, was born and brought up on a dairy farm in Wigtown. Andrew and wife Janice farm their 230+ ha unit with 160 suckler cows and 600 breeding ewes with a small herd of pedigree Charolais cattle. Andrew's sons farm a nearby tenanted unit which frequently provides replacement breeding stock for Barnbackle. For as long as Andrew can remember, he has been a member of the Union, and got more involved when the consultation for Nithsdale NVZ came out. From there he went onto become vice chairman of the Dumfries branch, and then onto his previous role of Regional Board Chairman for Dumfries and Galloway. He also sat on the LFASS committee. Andrew was elected Vice President in February 2015.

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