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Suella Braverman Told It Would Take "Decades" To Shift Away From Foreign Workers

Home Secretary Suella Braverman (Alamy)

5 min read

Critical industry leaders have accused Home Secretary Suella Braverman of being disconnected from the realities facing short staffed sectors after she claimed that there is "no good reason" why more British people can't be trained to take up jobs as butchers and fruit pickers.

Speaking at a National Conservatism conference on Monday, which was addressed by a range of figures from the right of the Tory party, Braverman said the UK cannot "forget how to do things for ourselves", arguing that industries facing labour shortages should take on more domestic workers rather than ask ministers to let them bring in more people from overseas.

The latest net migration figures are due to be published in the coming days, and are expected to hit record highs. Braverman's comments have been viewed by some as a criticism of fellow Cabinet ministers who are more willing to relax visa rules to help fill gaps in the workforce.

A Downing Street spokesperson this morning insisted that the Home Secretary was speaking for the government, and said that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has previously called for employers "to make long-term investments in the UK workforce, instead of relying on overseas labour".

However, the National Farmers Union's deputy president Tom Bradshaw said fruit pickers were an odd choice by the home secretary given that the government has already decided to increase the number of time-limited visas for seasonal agricultural workers it will grant this year by 15,000 to 45,000. Fruit picking jobs last between three and nine months, making them unappealing to inactive Brits seeking employment, and previous attempts to get more UK workers picking and packaging fruit and vegetables have failed, he explained.

A 'Pick For Britain' campaign launched in 2020 was scrapped just a year later after the bid to convince more British people to help harvest fruit and vegetables resulted in very low uptake. In the end, around 8 per cent of the 70,000 roles made available were taken up by British people.

“There are several reasons why what Suella Braverman has said today shows she doesn’t have an understanding at all of the industry she is talking about," Bradshaw told PoliticsHome.

Nick Allen, CEO at the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), said it would take "decades" for the meat industry to shift to no longer be reliant on staff recruited from abroad.

The meat processing industry has been acutely affected by labour shortages in recent years, having been heavily reliant on workers from the European Union who left in high numbers due to the pandemic and Brexit making it significantly harder for them to work in the UK. 

“70 per cent of our workers were non-UK when Brexit happened, and that’s a significant number to replace. We are not talking years, we are talking decades to get where Suella Braverman would like us to be, and that will depend on a lot of factors," he told PoliticsHome.

Shortages in the sector have somewhat abated over the last year, Allen said, with factories reporting vacancies of around 10 per cent compared with 15 per cent at the height of the recent labour crisis. However, the industry still employs a significant number of foreign workers and is urging ministers to make it easier for companies to recruit from abroad by adding more industry roles to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL). The list is currently being reviewed by a group of independent migration experts, before being presented to the government. 

According to Allen, while labour pressures have slightly eased there are still more vacancies in the meat industry than people to fill them, and while there have been efforts to improve working conditions, it is still difficult finding British people to take up butchery roles.

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council (BPC), said companies in his sector would "love" to hire more people in the domestic workforce, but it isn't feasible. 

"For the proximity, for the longevity of employment, for reducing turnover, it would be fantastic. Members have been working on that over the last few years, and it has gotten better, but we're still very reliant on non-UK labour," he told PoliticsHome.

Over half of people employed by the poultry sector in the UK are from abroad and without significant government investment in training and education, there is no realistic prospect of moving away from that model, he said.

“It’s about need, and we need to fill these roles," Griffiths explained.

As well as fruit pickers and butchers, Braverman said more lorry drivers should be British. No.10 pointed to the haulage sector's recent success in recruiting more drivers from the domestic workforce as an example of how industry can become less reliant on foreign staff. The haulage industry has been able to establish an inward stream of young British workers to drive lorries through more driver tests and government-funded training, though bosses say it has fuelled their rising costs as they had to raise salaries to attract domestic labour.

Speaking this morning, the Prime Minister's spokesperson said he wanted to reduce net migration, but refused to set out a timetable for doing so or give a specific target.

They also said they would not tell companies to pay staff more in a bid to convince more British people to take up jobs. “We are not in the business of telling private sector companies what is the right salaries to pay their staff. That is for them to decide," they said.

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