A figure buried in a government report points to a potential Brexit catastrophe

Davis May Brexit
Steve Topple

One statistic buried in a government spreadsheet should set alarm bells ringing over the potential impact of Brexit on a major UK industry.

Figures of concern?

On Tuesday 9 January, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released its annual Structure of the Agricultural Industry reports. DEFRA says the reports show:

Land and crop areas, livestock populations and agricultural workforce estimates for England and the UK as at 1 June each year.

And it’s the workforce estimates that make for concerning reading.

DEFRA’s analysis shows [xls, table ‘Labour’] that in 2017 the size of the casual agricultural workforce was 48,000, an increase of 10.3% from June 2016. At the same time, the number of regular full time employees fell by 3.7%. The casual workforce is now at its highest level since 2004, and up 29.7% since 2010. Meanwhile, the number of regular full time employees is at its lowest level since 2007.

Number crunching

Brexit makes the figures concerning because of the number of EU staff who make up the agricultural workforce. A House of Commons briefing from June 2017 showed [pdf, p5-6] that EU workers accounted for around:

  • 20% of full time agricultural workers.
  • 98% of the seasonal workforce in horticulture.
  • 40% of staff on egg farms and around 50% of staff in egg packing centres.
  • 63% of red and white meat processing industry workers.

The briefing also warned [pdf, p6] that one in five farms and businesses connected to the pig industry would struggle to survive without migrant labour. And as The Farmers Guardian reported on the same day DEFRA released its reports, 56% of dairy farmers employ EU workers.

Tim Brigstocke, Policy Director at the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF), said it was “not resilient” for the dairy industry to keep relying on EU workers. Warning of a “catastrophic failure” if the issue wasn’t resolved, he said:

We want to look at how we can keep dairy farming from falling off a cliff edge while addressing the issues which turn off UK workers from seeking a career in the sector.

Brexit Britain?

Currently, the government’s post-Brexit immigration policy is unfinalised. But former Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis told the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) at the start of January that an agreement reached in December 2017 meant:

We have taken a big step forward… EU citizens living lawfully here before the UK’s exit from the EU will be able to stay. The deal will respect the rights that individuals are exercising and the benefits they currently have.

However, the farming industry pointed out that this agreement covers permanent residents rather than seasonal workers.

With Brexit still making slow progress and Theresa May’s government looking decidedly unstable, the future for UK agriculture and its workforce seems no closer to being resolved.

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