There are a great many pressures impacting on people’s day-to-day lives right now. So I want to focus this week on two matters: a recent report on the shortage of labour in the food and agriculture industries; and the UK Government’s announcement of its new energy policy.
In themselves, the two issues might seem a few steps removed from the cost-of-living crisis. Nevertheless, they remain intrinsically linked to the cost of living, as well as for jobs right across the North-east.
Last week saw publication of a report on labour shortages in the food and agricultural sectors by a cross-party committee of MPs. It didn’t hold back in its criticism of the UK Government, stating that it was “struck by the Government’s failure to grasp the labour issues faced by the food and farming sector, and actual experience of businesses on the ground”. The report continued, “there has also been an unwelcome tendency for the Government to blame the sector for not doing more to tackle the problem or fully utilising the immigration system – sometimes on the basis of incorrect information”.
The report also laid bare the UK Government’s indifferent attitude towards the crisis in the pig sector where farmers were faced with the horrendous circumstances of having to kill healthy pigs because there was a shortage of staff in processing plants, even if there had been drivers available to transport them there.
I visited a local pig farm a few months ago and met with the farmer and local NFUS officials. I fed back the first-hand experiences they shared with me to Ministers in the UK Government. Sorry to say, the response I received from Ministers chimes exactly with the criticisms set out in the report.
The report concludes there is no doubt about the seriousness of the issues facing the food and farming sector caused by labour shortages. Worryingly, these include food security, animal welfare and the mental health of those working within those sectors.
If the UK Government fails to act on these recommendations, it risks shrinking these sectors, leading to higher food price inflation, making us more reliant on food imports as our own food production capacity and the jobs it supports go abroad. I shall be following those up again with Ministers now I can point to this very powerful piece of work.
Also last week, the UK Government published its energy security strategy, which not only failed to address people’s immediate energy price fears, it also missed huge opportunities both in helping to address the climate emergency and at the same time benefitting the North-east by committing support to carbon capture.
For all their previous talk on the climate crisis, what we see in this report is the UK Government failing to offer support for a just transition or carbon capture facilities that could secure jobs and investment in the North-east, and no funding for new renewables projects that could provide us with sustainable, clean energy.
Everyone knows that oil and gas are going to be needed for many years to come, even as part of our transition to net-zero. However, the only way to stabilise prices, ensure domestic energy security and tackle the climate crisis in the long term is to invest as heavily and as quickly as possible in renewables, hydrogen and CCUS.
If powers over energy had been vested in Holyrood from the outset, Scotland could have been getting on with this years ago instead of waiting in vain for UK Ministers to grasp the importance of acting.