UK food industry "faces looming skills gap", trade body says

UK food industry "faces looming skills gap", trade body says

A new law ending the free movement of people from the EU into the UK will come into force after Brexit in proposals unveiled in today's Queen's Speech, which details the UK government's planned programme of legislation.

While much EU legislation will be provisionally transferred en masse into UK law by the planned Repeal Bill, the Government has drawn up an Immigration Bill to put before a vote in Parliament to govern UK immigration policy once it leaves the EU, which is set for spring 2019.

"With the repeal of the European Communities Act, it will be necessary to establish new powers concerning the immigration status of European Economic Area nationals. The Bill will allow the Government to control the number of people coming here from Europe while still allowing us to attract the brightest and the best," the UK government announced today.

The Government said its Immigration Bill "will allow for the repeal of EU law on immigration, primarily free movement".

The Immigration Bill will also "make the migration of EU nationals and their family members subject to relevant UK law once the UK has left the EU", the Government said. "We are introducing an Immigration Bill that allows us to end free movement in the UK and bring EU nationals within the UK's immigration system."

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food and soft drink manufacturers operating in the UK, has long lobbied for the country's government to retain free movement, and for the existing 117,000 EU citizens employed in the sector to be granted the right to remain in the country post-Brexit.

In response to the new legislative programme, the FDF said: "We understand that controlled immigration is crucial to healthy communities. However, business must be able to attract the brightest and best global talent. We hope Government's forthcoming proposal on the future of EU citizens here will be well received by the EU27. We value greatly the contribution of the 117,000 EU citizens already working in food and drink manufacturing, and urge the right to remain. As an industry, we face a looming skills gap and need access to skills and talent while we continue to boost home-grown talent.

A raft of proposed new legislation designed to prepare the UK for a "smooth and orderly" exit from the EU was at the heart of the Queen's Speech though many manifesto pledges have been quietly dropped as the Government faces the task of putting together a viable legislative programme without an overall majority.

As an indication of the scale of change which Brexit will bring, seven separate pieces of legislation are proposed to anticipate the end of EU jurisdiction.

The centrepiece of Prime Minister Theresa May's programme is the Repeal Bill, which will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and transfer relevant EU law on to the UK statute book at the moment of Brexit in March 2019.

"Maintaining consumer confidence in the safety and authenticity of UK food and drink is paramount and the Repeal Bill must provide certainty for our 6,800 businesses," the FDF's director general, Ian Wright, said. "Any proposed changes to food and drink regulation as between the UK and EU – and across the devolved administrations of the UK – should be subject to detailed consultation with industry and we offer our expertise for the task ahead."

There are four key outcomes the FDF want for the industry in relations to Brexit," Wright said. "Access to our valued EU workforce, a stable regulatory regime, zero-tariff and frictionless trade across borders and recognition of Ireland's special circumstances. We are ready to seize new opportunities, but our trading and regulatory ties with the EU are deeply interwoven and must be dismantled with care. We cannot afford any 'cliff edge' scenario.

Maintaining the seamless movement of goods between the UK and EU will be essential for the food and drink industry, said the FDF, as nearly three quarters (70%) of food and non-alcoholic drink exports and imports are with the EU.

Today's proposed Customs Bill will reassert UK control over the import and export of goods after Brexit, setting out a plan for the creation of a standalone customs regime. In addition, the Bill will allow for the possibility of future trade agreements with the EU and others. 

"Food and drink must not face additional delays at border or burdensome checks," Wright said. "This will be vital to ensure both the competitiveness of the UK's wider agri-food and drink supply chain which supports four million jobs and to avoid potential impacts on the cost and availability of food and drink enjoyed by UK consumers."

Meanwhile, a proposed Trade Bill has put in place a legal framework to enable the UK to strike free trade deals with countries around the world. However, the FDF wants to see a special deal with the Republic of Ireland, and a "bold and ambitious" Free Trade Agreement with the EU, as well as frictionless trade across borders.

"Ireland is of particular concern to us as there is a complete co-dependency in food and drink production between the UK and Republic of Ireland," Wright said, urging the UK government to find a solution which would avoid any kind of "hard border". 

A proposed Agriculture Bill also raised questions for the food and drink sector. It purports to ensure an effective system is in place to support UK farmers after the UK leaves the EU and is therefore no longer subject to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

"The UK's 6,800 food and drink manufacturers must have access to adequate supplies of raw materials that are safe, of high quality and competitively priced," Wright insisted, adding that sustainable and competitive food production should be the key objective to replace the CAP.

A Fisheries Bill proposes the UK will be able be control access to its water and set UK fishing quotas once it has left the EU. "Any new fisheries policy must ensure continued access to the supplies we need at competitive prices, whether domestically caught or imported," said Wright.

He added the bills announced today would require "meaningful scrutiny" in Parliament, and ongoing consultation with the industry. "These are unprecedented challenges and we cannot afford to get it wrong."