The UK’s new immigration policy and the food supply chain Contents

2The new immigration policy


5.The new immigration policy was set out in a policy statement published in February 2020, followed by a “Further Details” document in July.12 The new policy was broadly similar to the 2018 Immigration White Paper, published under the previous Prime Minister, which it superseded.13 However, the White Paper proposed (initially, at least) an uncapped immigration route for temporary short-term workers because of “particular difficulties in recruiting staff in certain parts of the UK, particularly more rural and remote areas and regions” and as some sectors had developed a “reliance” on lower skilled workers from the EEA.14

6.Provision for the Government’s immigration policy is made in the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020—which legislated for the end of freedom of movement for EEA nationals in the UK—and the October 2020 version of the Immigration Rules.15 However, key elements of the immigration regime are still to be decided: as Kevin Foster MP, Minister for Future Borders and Immigration at the Home Office, told us, “the immigration rules that talk about the ability to have a seasonal workers scheme do not set a cap number”.16

7.There are three distinct strands to the immigration policy of particular relevance to the food supply chain:

Skilled immigrant workers will be subject to the new points-based system (PBS), the key elements of which are the need to have:

A job offer from an approved sponsor and a command of verbal English to an acceptable standard are also required.20

8.A minimum salary of £20,480 or 80% of the “going rate” for the profession concerned (whichever is higher) can be accepted, but only if the post concerned is on the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) Shortage Occupation List (SOL), or if the applicant has a PhD in a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subject relevant to the job.21 For “new entrants”, a lower minimum salary of £20,480 or 70% of the “going rate” for the profession concerned (whichever is higher) can be accepted.22 Visas for “highly skilled workers”, which the Government has yet to define, will also fall within the PBS, but they will not require a job offer.23

9.For workers who do not achieve enough points to qualify under the PBS, there will be no immigration route, except for some seasonal workers (see Chapters 4 and 5). Previously under the Single European Market’s freedom of movement arrangements, there was no restriction on EEA nationals coming to the UK to take these “low-skilled” jobs. The Government stated in February 2020 that:

We will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route. We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust.24

10.There will be an exception for those who would not attain enough points to qualify under the PBS but who undertake seasonal agricultural labour through the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP).25 The Government has announced that the SWP will be extended for a third year into 2021, although to date no details of next year’s scheme have been published.26

11.A PBS for non-EEA migrants has been in place since 2008, so the new immigration policy will most affect EEA nationals (a comprehensive summary of the changes is set out in the table in Appendix A). However, EEA nationals already resident in the UK by 31 December 2020 will be able to apply by 30 June 2021 for either:

Kevin Foster said that “we are still seeing thousands of applications every day to the EU settlement scheme, with 4.2 million applications already and 3.9 million statuses granted”, and added that “the flow we have seen has actually been positive […] We welcome them and wish for them to stay”.28

Impact on food prices and food security

12.Our July 2020 report on covid-19 and food supply looked at the issues of food prices and food security, and highlighted the concerns that the pandemic had highlighted and the potential impacts of the end of the Brexit transition period.29 Tom Bradshaw, Vice President of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said that, in the event of a shortage of seasonal workers, there would be less food grown and harvested in the UK, and increased imports.30 The NFU raised concerns that the lack of clarity on the number of visas for seasonal agricultural workers, for example, meant that “food security is being placed at risk”.31

13.Predicting the impact on prices in the supermarket and shops of such a switch from domestic-grown food would, Tom Bradshaw said, be “very difficult, because you have to look at whether we are comparing the same production systems overseas”, for example in terms of wages, employment benefits, and environmental protection.32 He added that such imported produce might not necessarily cost more “but it might not be produced to the same standard”.33 Richard Griffiths, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council, said that if his industry does not have access to EEA labour, then “ultimately what it leads to is whether we have food security and affordable food”.34

14.The pressures on profit margins in the food supply chain was noted by Defra: “the agri-food chain faces particular workforce challenges driven by pressures to keep product prices low for consumers in a highly competitive sector with low returns for businesses”, and that, as a result, “in recent years these industries have relied heavily on low-wage migrant labour”.35 Kevin Foster also highlighted retailers’ pressure on suppliers to keep their prices low as a reason for why they had to come to rely on migrant labour:

It would also be complacent not to reflect on whether migration should be the alternative to offering fair terms, conditions and packages. Should we be playing up to […] the impact of some major buyers and supermarkets looking to push prices down based on the ability to access this type of labour via the migration system? Is that where we should be or should we say, “No, your first stop is the domestic labour market”? You work with Defra and the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] to recruit. If you cannot, after those sorts of efforts, you can eventually turn to migration.36

15.In order to secure the labour it requires to maintain production levels under the new immigration policy, the food supply chain will have to attract more resident staff. Although it must be recognised there are significant structural barriers preventing many domestic workers from substantial engagement in seasonal harvest work and this is not a new feature of the UK labour market. Additionally, as we explore in the following chapters, it should be recognised that it is not just a question of better pay, but also of improved conditions that will attract more UK workers to businesses in the food supply chain. While there are benefits to improving the attractiveness of the food supply chain as a place to work in terms of securing a more stable and predictable workforce, there is a risk that this may come at the cost of higher consumer food prices or a loss of market share to imports potentially produced to lower standards. This would impact on the UK’s food security and on the ability of some families to afford enough healthy nutritious food. As we made clear in our report on covid-19 and food supply there are already concerns about both. The Government should pay particular attention to food prices in the period after the introduction of the new immigration policy—if prices rise, due to a shortage of labour, it should stand ready to make appropriate policy adjustments.

13 HM Government, The UK’s future skills-based immigration system (December 2018)

14 HM Government, The UK’s future skills-based immigration system (December 2018), p52, para 6.42

17 Additional routes include the “Global Talent”, “Start-up”, “Innovator”, student and graduate routes.

18 RQF: Regulated Qualifications Framework in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. SCQF: Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework in Scotland. Both allow different types of qualification to be compared.

19 HM Government, The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System: Further Details (July 2020), p17, paras 37 and 39

20 HM Government, The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System: Further Details (July 2020), p17, para 37

21 If the role is not on the Shortage Occupation List and the PhD is not in a STEM subject relevant to the job, then the minimum income is either £23,040 or at least 90% of the going rate for the profession (whichever is higher).

22 Someone is classified as a new entrant if they are: switching from the Student or Graduate route to the Skilled Worker route; or under the age of 26 on the date of their application; or working towards recognised professional qualifications or moving directly into post-doctoral positions (HM Government, The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System: Further Details (July 2020), p25, para 56)

23 HM Government, The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System: Further Details (July 2020), p17, para 41

24 HM Government, The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System: Policy Statement (February 2020), pp3–4

25 HM Government, The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System: Further Details (July 2020), p59, para 140

26 Home Affairs Committee, Work of the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, HC 919 2019–21, 4 November 2020, Q125

27 GOV.UK, Apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (settled and pre-settled status), webpage. Where “continuous residence” requires being resident in the UK for at least six months in any 12-month period.

29 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2019–21, COVID-19 and food supply, HC 263, Chapter 2

31 National Farmers Union (LFS0037) p2

35 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (LFS0033) para 1.1.2

Published: 22 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement