Written Evidence submitted by Lincolnshire County Council (LS0051)
Agri-food is a priority sector for Lincolnshire. As such Lincolnshire County Council is responding to this call for evidence having undertaken interviews with those working across the industry – from field to fork. The sector faces multiple interconnected challenges and labour issues are part of this. Lincolnshire County Council welcomes the attention being given to this subject by the committee and also extends an invitation to members of the committee to visit Lincolnshire and the UK Food Valley, to discover more of what is happening throughout our pioneering food chain.
We spoke to a wide range of businesses across Lincolnshire and labour shortages were highlighted as a challenge for nearly all. From picking the crops, to tractor drivers, to operatives in factories, processors and abattoirs, the issue is extensive and deep. Many of our land based businesses have also diversified in recent years – perhaps to visitor accommodation or a farm shop, where they are experiencing recruitment difficulties as well.
Land owners , growers and processors spoke to us about the reduction in available labour following Brexit. They also old us about the challenges of recruiting local people many of whom had a wide variety of opportunities to choose from, as multiple sectors are recruiting. Farmers told us about employees being tempted to other roles – many of their skilled employees hold HGV licences or were able to drive plant machinery on construction sites for example.
A number of these businesses were securing labour with promises of increased wages or bonus payments to work during harvest or to the end of the year. Labour shortages were also reported in pack houses and food processing businesses. Wage inflation was raised across the sector.
There were some green shoots of positivity from some businesses, particularly those who believe that the industry would respond with increasing innovation, digitisation and automation. However, other people felt that automation was not an option, or could not respond quickly enough. Instead they wanted to see an increase in seasonal worker schemes. A number of farmers and growers said that the lack of labour would affect their business plan, they would stop growing labour intensive products and two were keen to look at the new ELMS scheme and the opportunities to plant trees or rewild and move way from food production.
Many people felt that a training scheme bespoke to food and farming was needed. The need to attract younger people was also a repeated theme. One example was: a farm currently lifting potatoes with the total age of the 4 workers being 281 years, an average age of 70 having resorted to begging retired farmers to help as they cannot get any agency staff. This is not sustainable.
Supply of resources / supply chain, HGV driver shortages, Brexit, changes to Basic Payment Scheme were all common responses along with the rise in energy prices, increase in the cost of fertiliser/ inputs. The lack of available machinery to buy – with very long lead in times, was also raised. Availability of packaging was also a common response. Businesses also recognised climate change and the need to respond to the drive for a greener economy. Changes to self-employed IR35 determination mean many contractors have found themselves worse off paying higher NI contributions.
Many farm businesses have looked to "manage" with family labour where possible and 60 hour weeks, which is only a short term solution.
Many people we spoke to highlighted issues with abattoirs. The Association of Meat Suppliers have highlighted a problem that migrant workers with butchery skills can come into the UK on a Skilled Worker Visa with 70 immigration points. Most can get to 60 points but often the 10 points for English Language is the barrier. At present they are required to read, write, speak and listen to (and understand) English. This is the same as is required for a Doctor to get a Skilled Worker Visa. It would be logical for the English language requirement be set as two tiers. Tier 1 for doctors and Tier 2 for other workers who only need to be able to speak & listen.
Business cash flow – with delays in the supply chain comes a delay in payment.
Concerns were raised at the increase to cost and time, further impacting on businesses although there was a view also that over time these processes would become more efficient. A number of livestock businesses spoke about difficulties that they had already faced, particularly with the export of breeding stock, for example bulls to Northern Ireland was one example, the farer said that exporting to the EU was unimaginable at this time.