Immigration rules temporarily lifted on foreign butchers to prevent mass pig cull

ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener reports on the pressures that have sparked yet another U-turn

More foreign butchers will be allowed to temporarily work in the UK as the government seeks to prevent a cull of more than 100,000 pigs.

Farmers have already been forced to cull thousands of healthy pigs on farms (meaning they're are not allowed to be used for food) because a lack of a butchers at slaughterhouses in the UK.

In a bid to stop more pigs being wasted, the government has announced measures that will allow hundreds of foreign butchers to work in the UK - similar to recent move that is allowing up to 5,500 poultry workers in the UK ahead of Christmas under the temporary workers route.

Environment Secretary George Eustice admitted butcher shortages had been a "aggravating factor" in the pig industry, with around 800 butchers needed to fill the workforce gap - the scheme will last six months.

He said he's confident that vacancies will be filled, adding that he hopes there will be "strong interest" in the scheme, as he said there has been with the poultry worker scheme.

It follows a meeting between farmers, meat processors, the National Pig Association (NPA), representatives from the government's environment department and the recently appointed supply chain advisor Sir Dave Lewis - formerly the boss of Tesco.

Following the meeting, NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said there is "definitely change occurring" in government on whether to relax visa rules.

Her organisation had been pushing the government for a while to relax immigration rules but she said the government only started listening after farmers were forced to cull animals on farms.

“It got to the point where we sent some images to various ministers to prove that pigs were reaching an overstocking situation on farm and that’s what triggered a small number of farms to start having to cull animals," she said.

"After that, everything changed and for the first time ever, we had someone from the Cabinet Office in one of our regular Defra meetings.

“This showed me that the message appears to have landed. I think that finally the government has listened.”

Mr Eustice said he doesn't "accept we ignored the pleas of industry", at the suggestion that the move to lift immigration was heavily delayed.

Why are animals being culled?

Regulations in the UK mean animals can only be sold as food if they are killed in an approved way in an approved setting.

Most killed on farms end up being be incinerated - it is hoped a relaxation of immigration rules will prevent up to 120,000 pigs being wasted.

The government says farmers are having to cull their own pigs not just because of butcher shortages, but because coronavirus impacts mean exports to China - a major market for UK farmers - are down by 21%.

Less butchering is required when pigs are exported to foreign nations as they are often shipped as whole carcasses.

Will relaxing immigration rules be enough?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the government's approach, saying the shortage of butchers was "completely predictable" after the UK left the EU.

He said without a long term strategy to deal with shortages, the government has been forced to take a "botched response that's too late".

He added: "Issuing short term visas or taking short term action is no substitute for what we should have had, which is a long term plan.

"My concern is that we're going to get into a game of whack-a-mole here, where we sort out abattoirs but then it comes up in deliveries, sort out deliveries then it comes up in fuel."

The NPA had been hoping the government would go one step further by relaxing language requirements on foreign butchers, so more can work in the UK even if they don't speak fluent English, however the government has said this will not be happening.

The NPA said the move would encourage more butchers to apply for visas because the English level requirement presented a "final blocker" to those considering it.

“Obviously, we will keep the pressure on to make sure the process goes as quickly as it possibly can to avoid any further deterioration of the situation on farm," Ms Davies said.