The UK should increase visas for seasonal workers as part of a drive to cultivate as much food as possible domestically, a former chief of MI5 has said.
Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, who led the domestic intelligence service from 2002 to 2007, said in a lecture that security of food supplies would fit within the government’s own definition of national security. She said she believed this meant strengthening domestic supply.
“We need to acknowledge that we should produce as much of our own food as we can, with due regard to sustainability, and be able to export what we can,” the former director-general of the Security Service told members of the National Farmers’ Union.
“Several people [have] said that [food security] was about just getting a secure food line from somewhere else . . . I’ve interpreted it differently,” Manningham-Buller said.
“We have a hope that we will continue to get food from our nearest neighbours as we get energy from them. But I think the more we can be self-sufficient, the better chances we have of withstanding price hikes, spikes, shocks and so on — and politics.”
Manningham-Buller, who now runs a small sheep farm in Wales, added: “[We] clearly need a better visa policy so that these workers who are not available here can come here and help us.
“We must have visas for seasonal workers. And it’s not just about [the food sector], there’s a shortage of labour across the economy, whether it’s care homes, whether it’s doctors and nurses . . . It shouldn’t be beyond our wit to develop a visa system that deals with that.”
Manningham-Buller’s intervention comes as the UK grapples with its post-Brexit food policy and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought supply lines into the spotlight by risking international grain flows. She said this constituted a “weaponisation of food”.
UK farmers are pushing for a larger allocation of visas for seasonal workers to pick fruit and vegetables, saying that the current 40,000 tally falls far short of the 70,000-80,000 needed. But a succession of home secretaries has pushed back against increasing numbers as they seek to keep overall migration numbers down.
The free market Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank, whose ideas inform parts of the ruling Conservative party’s thinking, has meanwhile argued that agricultural policy should focus on UK farmers competing in global markets. Parliament’s environment, food and rural affairs committee is holding an inquiry into food security.
Manningham-Buller’s comments align her with the farming lobby, which has pushed for a strategic move to increase domestic food cultivation — which currently provides about 54 per cent of the UK’s supplies — and for post-Brexit farm subsidies to recognise the role of food production alongside environmental improvements.
The former MI5 head said she had overseen a doubling of the security service’s staffing and a drive to broaden the thinking of successive governments on national security, pushing other public bodies to consider its relevance to areas such as food.