Farming News - Relief for Animal Welfare Post-Brexit: Vets Added to the Shortage Occupation List

Relief for Animal Welfare Post-Brexit: Vets Added to the Shortage Occupation List

08 Aug 2019
Frontdesk / Livestock

Brexit, despite having surpassed its three-year anniversary this May, has achieved little progress to boast about: all the outcomes – a no deal, hard deal and even no Brexit at all – remain firmly on the table.

Irrespective of whether the UK departs from the bloc with a deal in place or not, the welfare of animals has been in constant dispute as Brexit threatens to undermine the UK’s highly-praised practices by diluting access to the talent of the workers that care for them – vets and farm workers.

It is no secret that the sector overwhelmingly relies on EU talent with one report by the House of Lords finding 90% of vets and 75% of abattoir staff are recruited from the EU and beyond. Yet the skills-based immigration plan that is pencilled in for 2021 to replace Free Movement jeopardises this crucial workforce. Its replacement model involves costly visa applications, administrative to-and-froing and higher hoops to jump through to secure a job in the UK, which is only aggravated further by the fact that the sector has faced ‘significant recruitment difficulties’ since the EU referendum.

One of these highly contested rules sits around the £30,000 income requirement for a Tier 2 Work Visa which elbows most farm workers as well as graduate vets, researchers and scientists clean out of the opportunity. The British Veterinary Association claim this rule alone could lead to a “wipe-out” of vets in UK slaughterhouses.

Fortunately, however, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) advised in their report this May to re-add veterinary roles to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) – a resource which lists occupations the UK is in short supply of workers for –  after they were removed in 2011 because Free Movement proved sufficient in fuelling the workforce with EEA talent.

The benefits of being featured on the SOL include a visa discount as well as exemptions from the £30,000 salary rule and the £35,000 income rule which working migrants normally must meet after five years in the UK in order to stay. Applicants are also prioritised in the event of the Tier 2 annual cap being reached while recruiters and employers are relieved from having to advertise their vacancies locally for 28 days via the ‘Resident Labour Market Test’. It’s a win-win scenario in which Amanda Boag, president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), shares such optimism. Boag hopes that adding vets to the SOL “will go some way reducing the 12% vacancy rate” and ameliorate “the risk of the shortage growing post-Brexit”.

However, workforce shortages for veterinarians are only compounded further by a lack of interest in homegrown youth. Figures from the RCVS show that most UK vets graduated from an EU university while 22% of academic teachers are also EU nationals. The Food Standards Agency fear that essential and critical abattoir work is not attracting British workers due to dwindling disinterest and the fact that those who study veterinary science don’t tend to naturally progress into slaughterhouses in their career path.

The MAC took this on board and notes that there are some courses beginning in September 2020 to tackle the shortfalls, but that training can take many years in which a ‘cliff edge’ and skills gap could occur for a significant period of time for the sector, which it crucially doesn’t have. In the wake of Brexit and stringent, new trading agreements being imposed with each country, this could increase the demand for Official Veterinarians at the border to supervise and sign off imports and exports of livestock and produce by 225% more, as estimated by the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss.

Whether or not the initiative to place vets on the SOL will be enough to overcome the projected demand, make up for the loss of homegrown talent and fulfil its existing shortages, only time will tell. However, it certainly doesn’t bode well for the intertwining and largest manufacturing industry – food and drink – since farming roles are offered no such crumb of relief.  The only route on offer to alleviate the inevitable shortage of farm and horticultural workers who are unable to meet the £30,000 income requirement is a 12-Month Temporary Visa which will run until 2025. Under this highly restrictive route, workers are not permitted to bring family members with them, seek employment after their 12 months is up or return to the UK for a further year afterwards. They must still pay for this visa, too.

That being said, the Government is in the midst of piloting a Seasonal Worker Scheme for two years which allows farmers to recruit 2,500 migrants a year from outside the EU to work for six months. Since this is just a drop in the ocean to the 60,000 horticultural workers the sector routinely recruits every year alone, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) are now requesting the government extends the scheme to 30,000 for next year. Worryingly, however, the government has a different plan in mind as it seems to be encouraging farmers to invest in technology to ‘reduce demands for labour’ instead.

The post-Brexit immigration system has some serious implications for animal welfare too which the UK currently boasts has some of the highest standards in the world, all the while keeping costs lower than Europe. The reality of a botched trade deal, particularly with the US, is cheaper, unethically produced meat on UK supermarket shelves and farmers pushed out of business. NFU even warn that a no deal could lead to a mass slaughter of lambs due to overstocking. Farmers may have little option but to let their standards slip in the face of Brexit and the discouraging market, in which animals become the collateral damage.

It is evidently crucial that there is no immediate loss of veterinarians or farm workers: our food chains, livelihoods and the welfare of animals literally depend upon them.

This article has been written by Olivia Bridge who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of leading UK immigration lawyers.