FG chief reporter Abi Kay shares her views on the Migration Advisory Committee recommendations for post-Brexit immigration policy.
In late September, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published a landmark report on the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy.
The report was commissioned by the Home Secretary in 2017 to inform the Government as it draws up a new Immigration Bill, and ever since, Ministers have quickly shut down any discussion about future access to labour by saying they are ‘waiting for its recommendations’.
This is a serious issue for dairy farmers. An RABDF survey carried out in 2016 found 56 per cent of dairy farmers had employed overseas labour since 2011. That was a 24 per cent increase on the 2014 figure.
But while the Government has been happy to shout about its new pilot scheme for seasonal agricultural workers, it is much less keen to discuss the need for permanent employees.
I had the chance to quiz Defra Secretary Michael Gove on this subject at the Conservative Party Conference in October, when he told me there would be a policy which ‘ensured the specific needs of the economy are reflected’.
Now we have finally seen the MAC’s recommendations, though, we know they do exactly the opposite.
First of all, the report calls on Ministers to keep migrants earning less than £30,000 out of the country.
And secondly, it says there should be no sector-specific migration route for ‘low-skilled’ workers; a definition which, for some inexplicable reason, covers most agricultural employment and other jobs further up the food supply chain.
A policy designed around these principles would in no way be taking into account the needs of the rural economy.
The only thing it would be taking account of is skewed political considerations around immigration.
I say skewed, because polling from British Future and Hope Not Hate shows the public is actually only concerned about generalised ‘low-skilled’ immigration.
Ask people if they want to see a reduction in the number of low-skilled migrants, and 44 per cent will say yes.
But ask them if they want to see fewer immigrants working on farms, and that figure drops to 26 per cent, meaning three-quarters of Brits are happy to see overseas workers on-farm.
The Government’s plans to keep potential dairy employees out of the country are actually an attempt to satisfy an imaginary public desire.
There is no doubt the industry itself could do more to attract British workers. Some dairy farms have employees working upwards of 70 hours per week. Others pay low wages, offer little progression or keep holiday and sick pay to a minimum.
These are real issues which need to be addressed if dairy is to become an attractive sector to young people with so many easier options. But dealing with these structural problems will be a long-term job.
In the short-term, dairy farms will continue to need access to workers from abroad, and that means, at the very least, Government must recognise farm work is a manually skilled occupation.
This would allow farmers to continue employing workers from overseas, even if the MAC recommendations were implemented.
Anything less risks serious disruption to the rural economy, and although the MAC might think this would ‘not be catastrophic’, I am sure most shoppers would disagree.