Brexit leak leaves food sector ‘alarmed’ on immigration policy

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A leaked document revealing the UK government’s proposal to tighten immigration rules as early as 2019 has left the food sector “alarmed” over ongoing fears of a worker shortage.

The UK could end the free movement of labour from the EU immediately after Brexit and introduce tougher restrictions that aim to deter low-skilled European workers from coming to the country, it emerged today.

In a Home Office document leaked to The Guardian, the UK set out a series of proposals to reduce the flow of low-skilled European migrants. These include a two-year maximum residency (extending to three- to five-years for “highly skilled occupations”) and restrictions on the right to bring family members to the UK.

The document, which was formulated in August, has not received official ministerial backing but it is likely to be welcomed by the pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative Party.

Speaking today during Prime Minister’s question time, PM Theresa May appeared to signal her support for a hard-line approach to immigration. According to her assessment, low-skilled migrants entering the workforce are a contributory factor to wage depreciation.

“What people want to see is control of that immigration ... We’re already able to exercise controls in relation to those who come to this country from outside the EU and we continue to believe it’s important to have net migration at sustainable levels because of the impact particularly it has on people on the lower end of the income scale in depressing their wages,” the Prime Minister said.

Food sector backlash

The food sector has repeatedly stressed that it is dependent on migrant workers from the EU.

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, the food manufacturing sector employs a greater proportion of non-UK employees than the national average at 26.9% versus 6.1%.

Likewise, the UK’s agricultural production is reliant on a “flexible” seasonal workforce, much of which comes from outside the UK. In a recent report, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warned that the supply of seasonal workers for the next two seasons is now in jeopardy. The number of seasonal workers coming to work on British farms in the horticultural sector this year has already dropped 17%, the NFU noted.

Industry body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said that access to European workers is one of the sector’s four key priorities in the Brexit negotiations, alongside international trade, regulatory stability and domestic support.

Commenting on the leak, FDF director general Ian Wright said: “Food and drink manufacturing, Britain's largest manufacturing sector, will be alarmed by the proposals contained in the document… If this does represent the government's thinking it shows a deep lack of understanding of the vital contribution that EU migrant workers make - at all skill levels - across the food chain.”

Wright also stressed that the document “undermines” the role of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which was created to help formulate a post Brexit migration plan.

“We will continue to work with government and MAC to ensure a practical and evidence based way to proceed,” Wright stressed.

Upbeat note on scientific cooperation

In an official document, also released today, the UK government set out its hopes for continued cooperation with the EU on scientific research and innovation. 

The position paper, titled 'Collaboration on Science and Innovation', said that the UK wants to build a "new, deep and special partnership" with the EU in research and development across various fields, from space exploration to medical advances. 

This move was more warmly welcomed by the food sector. 

Helen Munday, the FDF's chief scientific officer, responded: "Science and innovation is key to the competitiveness of the UK food and drink sector. It is positive that government is being proactive in considering the needs of the research community post EU Exit, and we welcome the approach of maintaining links with the EU science community. The UK is held in high regard for its standards of science and innovation and we support all initiatives that can uphold this position."

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