On 9 November, the BRC’s Director of Food and Sustainability Andrew Opie appeared alongside witnessed from UK Hospitality and the Cold Chain Federation at an evidence session of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, as part of their inquiry into labour shortages in the food and farming sector.

Andrew’s key point was that labour shortages – not just in food and farming, but across the economy – are a long-term structural issue which requires a proper, policy response from government which is coordinated across Whitehall departments. Covid and EU exit have led to a significant shrinking in the pool of labour available to retailers, food suppliers and other businesses in the UK. Retailers are increasing pay, offering bonuses and perks to recruit and retain resource, but businesses are fishing in a drying pond. As such, the Food Strategy white paper due to be published in 2022 should include a plan for labour, placed front and centre. This is the crucial foundation for the rest of the Food Strategy.

The government needs to pull together a strategy for labour which looks beyond the skills and training horizon. Andrew told the Committee there should be a three-pronged approach to the development of a labour strategy which looks at:

  1. How do UK businesses recruit better domestically?
  2. Investment in skills, technology and innovation in the food supply chain.
  3. An honest conversation around the role migrant workers may play in the food supply chain.

If these fundamental questions aren’t addressed, the UK will start to see parts of food production being offshored, with produce then imported back to the UK.

MPs were keen to hear about the impact the HGV driver shortage was having on retail supply chains, with Andrew speaking to the ‘merry-go-round’ of drivers moving from one job to the next, leading to further disruption. Additionally, the three-month temporary visa scheme for overseas HGV drivers was too short to attract a meaningful number of recruits, with Andrew telling the Committee that the government took too long to get to the issue. However, the usual Christmas fare will make it to stores, with retailers implementing mitigations including range rationalisation to make the best of a challenging situation.

The Committee also quizzed Andrew on new border checks and controls due to come into effect for EU-GB trade in 2022. Andrew noted that the government’s decision to push back the implementation of these controls was welcome, as border infrastructure at UK ports had been completed and not all EU suppliers were ready to meet the new requirements. Introducing the checks as planned would have added even more pressure to an already stressed supply chain. Member states need to be aware that July 2022 is the deadline they should be working to, to support their suppliers in preparing for the new border procedures.

The BRC continues to engage with the government on supply chain disruption, impacting both food and non-food members. If you have any insight, data or thoughts you’d like to share so we can raise with officials and ministers, please get in touch with tom.mccarthy@brc.org.uk.