Visa announcement to ease pig cull crisis is 'imminent', says minister

Pigs on fields in Suffolk

The pig industry has called for temporary butchery visas to solve a workforce crisis and prevent a mass cull of animals - Credit: James Bass

An announcement is "imminent" on temporary visas to tackle an acute butcher shortage which has sparked fears of a mass pig cull, an environment minister said.

The pig industry has repeatedly called for short-term visas to address a chronic shortage of workers in pork processing plants - similar to the visas already offered to fill critical vacancies in the poultry and haulage industries.

The National Pig Association (NPA) says this has created a backlog of up to 150,000 pigs on overcrowded farms, raising the possibility of a mass cull for animal welfare reasons.

And that has sparked fears for the future of a sector which is a vital part of East Anglia's agricultural economy, with an estimated 20pc of the national herd kept in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Tory frontbencher Lord Benyon told the House of Lords that steps are being planned which will reflect the action taken in the poultry sector to deal with labour gaps.

He said: "We care deeply about this sector, the people that work in it, the welfare of the animals concerned, and want nothing more than to smooth out the perfect storm of a variety of different issues which have brought this to a head at this particular time.

"I had hoped to be able to come to the House with an announcement - it is imminent."

The labour shortage followed the departure of many eastern European workers after Brexit, exacerbated by Covid-19 factors.

Lord Benyon there is "a deficit of between 800 and 1,000 butchers we want to fill."

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During the debate, peers echoed industry concerns that while butchers met the wages criteria to be classed as skilled workers under the UK's new points-based immigration system, they were being held back because of the required English qualifications.

Lord Benyon said: "Part of our discussions, and the announcement I hope will be able to be made imminently, reflects what is also done in the poultry industry where those changes were made to encourage more workers to come over and operate in that sector."

The crisis has already prompted some East Anglian pig farmers to cull their animals and leave the industry.

Labour peer Baroness Hayman of Ullock said: "The government's response, including the prime minister's, to this crisis has been pretty hopeless, to put it mildly, so far.

"Unfortunately, it has been catastrophic to many pig farmers already because the government has taken so long to act."

NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: "We have not had any official confirmation by government on their plans so as yet we are unable to provide any comment."

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