Ministers are considering reducing the English language skills threshold for qualified butchers, so they can be recruited from the EU under temporary visas.
The move would be a response to the developing pig farming crisis, which has seen 150,000 animals stuck on farms, leading to welfare concerns and culls.
One prominent immigration lawyer has said that if the government made such a move, many other sectors of the economy would demand similar measures leading to an overly complex visa system.
This scenario would then put the prime minister’s stated intention of developing more skilled British workers under severe stress.
According to a report in the i newspaper the cabinet is divided on the issue with environment secretary George Eustice and cabinet office minister Stephen Barclay in favour of lifting barriers that are preventing key sector workers entering the UK, but home secretary Priti Patel and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng keen on maintaining current policy.
The skilled worker visa is open to butchers from abroad to work here but many of them do not meet English language standards or have qualifications at A-level or equivalent.
Eustice told the Farmers Weekly podcast that he was considering whether “tweaks” of the language threshold could be made to allow more butchers to work in abattoirs.
“We brought in a temporary visa scheme for poultry because there’s a very clear seasonal demand for around 5,500 people to work in the poultry sector,” he said.
“We don’t quite have that same rush on pigs, but what we are looking to do is see if we can make some tweaks to the skills list. Butchers are on the skills list. They are able to come to the UK provided they’ve paid that threshold of £25,000. Some processors have raised with us some questions around the language threshold to come in – so that’s something that we are looking at.”
The changes to the language threshold are not seen as a done deal, however, as they would need to be approved by the home secretary.
Employers are often happy that candidates have the necessary English skills to do the job but applicants are faced with having to sit costly English language tests to secure a visa” – Joanna Hunt, Fieldfisher
The i reported that one pig farmer in east Yorkshire, said it was “criminal” that she faced the prospect of culling animals and dumping them in landfill within weeks while some people are struggling to feed their families.
Joanna Hunt, head of immigration at law firm Fieldfisher, said the fact that the government was potentially providing another concession to another industry would “only increase the clamour from other sectors wanting similar treatment”.
She warned that the result would make the visa system overly complex “with the industry-specific carve-outs making it confusing for employers and workers. It also begs the question as to whether the government should look at the sponsorship system as a whole to see whether its structure is contributing to rather than alleviating some of the current staffing problems.
“This may be a more long-term sustainable solution than amending the immigration rules in response to each negative headline.”
Hunt said that the English language skills requirement caused problems for many skilled worker visa applicants: “their employers are often happy that they have the necessary English skills to do the job but applicants are faced with having to sit costly English language tests to secure a visa”.
Meanwhile, it was revealed on 5 October that just 27 EU lorry drivers had applied for temporary visas to work in Britain out of an initial tranche of 300 visas.
Rod McKenzie, policy director at the Road Haulage Association, said it was “hardly surprising” that there were so few applicants. He said: “Why would [lorry drivers] give up a job in Europe for a short gig in the UK?
“We always said 12-month visas were needed for 15,000 drivers, and for hauliers to be placed on shortage occupation list.”