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Post-Brexit farming concerns

How will the agricultural industry in the UK be affected post-Brexit?

07 October 2019, at 9:00am

The UK’s agricultural sector rakes in £122 billion to the British economy, employs one in seven people and fuels the thriving food and drink sector, all the while being able to boast that it upholds some of the highest food, hygiene and animal welfare practices in the world.

Although generating great success, the stability of agriculture post-Brexit hangs in the balance of veterinarians and farmers – both of which face unprecedented challenges to their workforces when the immigration rules apply to EU nationals in 2021. This is because free movement has fuelled both sectors with an influx of talent to plug its shortages with 90 percent of veterinarians and 75 percent of other abattoir staff originating from abroad.

The result of the EU referendum only served to exacerbate existing workforce shortages in the veterinary sector, which now sits between 10 and 15 percent. Yet when faced with the bleak prospect of the UK visa system – and wading through the complex and costly system to do so – the veterinary industry was plunged into uncertain territory.

Vets added to the Shortage Occupation List

Only this May has the government alleviated concerns by announcing that vets will be added to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), as advised by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). Veterinary surgeons were once on the SOL but were removed in 2011 as the “recruitment channel available within the EEA” fulfilled demand. Now that the route is closing on 31 October, putting vets back on the SOL is the least the government can do to protect the sector.

One of the advantages of being featured on the SOL is that applicants benefit from a visa discount. However, the waiver is marginal to say the least: vets will save only £292 when applying for a Tier 2 work visa and will still need to cough up £2,000 for the immigration health surcharge in order to access the NHS, £928 per child and dependent as well as £19.20 per person to register biometric information. This doesn’t include lawyer fees or having an application handled by pricey outsourcing firms or the compulsory English language test.

Visa applications need to be renewed every few years too, including the additional fees and English tests. However, applicants via the SOL route will not need to be offered a job with a salary of £30,000 to surpass entry clearance nor will they need to earn £35,000 in order to remain in the country five years later to qualify for settlement (indefinite leave to remain). SOL visa applicants are also prioritised over other visa applicants while employers do not need to waste time by advertising their vacancies locally for 28 days first, known as the “resident labour market test”.

Other concerns for vets

Although definitely a step in the right direction, the government could do with incentivising visas for migrants and increasing homegrown vets in the country.

The industry has suffered from recruitment difficulties – long before the EU referendum – due to dwindled interest among UK students which has only been compounded further by a lack of vet schools and courses. The MAC report even goes as far to claim that the “lack of trained veterinarians within the UK is a deeper issue” than Brexit.

Fortunately, new veterinary courses are set to begin in September 2020 to tackle this emerging problem in a joint effort by Keele and Harper Adams universities. Only recently, the government unveiled the post-study work visa for 2020/21 which grants international graduates a two-year grace period to find work before being subjected to the immigration rules, which could boost the veterinary sector with an influx of fresh new talent.

However, even with ramped-up efforts to attract students to the sector, the Food Standards Agency warns critical work conducted in abattoirs rarely piques interest in British citizens, especially those who go on to study veterinary science as few choose slaughterhouse work in their chosen career paths. The RCVS further estimates that 22 percent of academic staff training undergraduate vets in the country either graduated from an EU university or are EU-born. Any barriers to EU academic staff post-Brexit will also have a knock-on effect for the veterinary sector.

No relief for farming

The government has decided against offering any similar crumbs of relief or training initiatives to the veterinary sector’s partner industry, agriculture. Farm workers will not benefit from any discounts and will be burdened with the near-impossible task of meeting the £30,000 income requirement. This is despite the fact that 40 percent of staff on UK farms are recruited from the EU which rises to 58 percent on poultry farms during Christmas time.

The Home Office is currently piloting a Seasonal Agricultural Scheme to mitigate the inevitable shortages; however, the scheme only recruits 2,500 non-UK workers for a period of six months, which is a drop in the ocean to the 60,000-odd workers the sector needs every year. Farmers are now advocating that the government increases this figure to 30,000 for the second half of the pilot for more realistic results.

Ideally, the scheme will prove successful and will become a permanent route for farm workers after Brexit. If not, the only way agricultural staff will be able to enter the country is through a 12-month temporary visa which restricts workers to a yearly placement in which they cannot bring children or family with them, switch employer or even return to the UK for a “cooling off” period of another year.

In the absence of low-wage visa routes and with the implementation of time-restrictive placements in which migrants are tied to specific employers, anti-slavery charities caution that the schemes pave the way for increased human trafficking and, ironically, increased illegal migration as farms and other sectors desperately patch up vacancies with workers wherever they can get them.

Animal welfare in jeopardy

Spiralling the sector into despair even further is the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit and a UK–US trade deal. Any trade deal with the US makes for illegally produced and far cheaper meat with poor hygiene and animal welfare standards on UK supermarket shelves, which would decimate many UK farms which are unable to keep up. A report released on 14 August 2019 similarly warns no-deal could bring the end of British farming. Launched by “Farmers for a People’s Vote” – who also recently herded a flock of sheep in protest outside Whitehall – and former chief economist of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Sean Rickard, the report warns over half of UK farms could be forced out of business if the UK divorces the bloc without a deal. The NFU claims the remedy to no-deal would be to deregulate the industry, which would be a bitter defeat for animal welfare, warns the RSPCA, with chlorine-washed chicken, ractopamine pork and hormone-enhanced beef “much closer to being a reality”. A no-deal Brexit would also spike the demand of Official Veterinarians by 225 percent at the border which, even with the SOL, would be difficult to overcome.

To be realistic about safeguarding the sector and protecting animals, the government must extend its commitment by adding farming roles to the SOL – or by at least creating a more flexible route for lower-paid workers. Without doing so, workforce shortages coupled with a bad Brexit trade deal and increased tariffs shake the very foundations of the sector’s success. As one farmer warns, “selling out British farming could end up being the legacy of Brexit” in which animal welfare, sadly, becomes the collateral damage.