Farmers Say Priti Patel Has Refused To Meet To Discuss Labour Shortages
Exclusive: Farming Union chief Minette Batters has criticised an "extraordinary" refusal by Home Office ministers to meet to discuss industry concerns.
The National Farmer's Union (NFU) boss has accused the Home Secretary of repeatedly ignoring requests for meetings to discuss ongoing workforce shortages in the industry.
Farmers have faced difficulties finding seasonal workers and butchers over the last year, with some pork farmers forced to cull healthy pigs due to a lack of abattoir workers.
Ministers launched a new visa scheme in October to allow 800 foreign butchers to come to the UK in a bid to avert a crisis in the sector, but Environment Secretary George Eustice told The House magazine that only a small portion of those would arrive in the UK before Christmas.
Speaking to The House, Batters said it had been "impossible" to meet with the Home Office to discuss the problem facing the industry.
"I've not met with the Home Secretary, I've not met with the immigration minister. I've requested meetings continuously with both of them."
Asked what the Home Office response had been to requests to meet, Batters added: “Either [it’s] no reply or it’s a list of reasons as to why they’re too busy to meet.”
Batters said while Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay and Environment Secretary George Eustice had done a "huge amount" to help, there was a "blockage" with the Home Office.
She added: "There really is a blockage in what is needed which is a sort of dial up, dial down immigration policy that does not disadvantage primary production and does not disadvantage consumers who want to be able to buy British."
The NFU boss added that while she understood the government's promise to cut immigration after Brexit, she believed the public had not voted to "put others here out of business".
"I think the lines in the Home Office around immigration are very tough," she added. "I understand completely that the British people voted to leave the EU and a lot of that was about immigration, but they didn't vote to disadvantage themselves or to put others here out of business, let alone have a cull of healthy pigs.
"As with all things, finding a pragmatic solution, and meeting face-to-face and discussing these things through would be the biggest benefit at this time."
Tory MP Neil Parish, who chairs the Commons food and rural affairs committee, has accused immigration minister Kevin Foster of hiding behind Home Office processes after he refused calls to ease immigration rules to alleviate labour shortages.
Speaking to PoliticsHome, Parish said the comments from Batters proved the government were "simply not listening" to farmers.
"The Home Office are simply not listening to the industry, and don't seem to understand that there is a problem," he said.
"If they would show some willingness to meet with industry leaders they may understand that there is a crisis and there are steps they can take to resolve it."
Batters accused the Home Office of having a "state control" attitude and said the response was "unforgivable", adding the pig industry was facing a "slow death".
"It's just this sort of state control type attitude, that it's our way or the highway. I feel it was a travesty to have the [pig cull issue] played out in front of the media," she added.
"It is unforgivable really, we must as an industry be able to sort these things out. If they don't want a pig sector here, if you don't want to produce British pork, then they need to tell those pig farmers to get out of business.
"You cannot allow a sector to have a slow death."
A government spokesperson said: “The Government engages extensively with the NFU about how best we can help the industry develop.
“The British public voted to reject the low-wage, high immigration model and transition to something new. Employers need to make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce rather than relying on labour from abroad by offering training, career options, wage increases and investment.
“The food sector has received significant support - last year we expanded the Seasonal Workers Pilot to 30,000 visas for workers from across the globe to come to the UK for up to six months, and have announced more than 10,000 additional visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers.”
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