Sunak promises to put UK farmers 'at heart of British trade' but visa issues persist

Tue 16 May 2023
Posted by: Phillip Adnett
Trade News

Farmer standing in greenhouse, carrying food items, and surrounded by plants

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has launched a new package aimed at protecting the UK food supply chain, including a promise to protect farmers in future trade deal negotiations, as part of his efforts to tackle inflation.

However, a brewing row within the cabinet over additional visas for fruit pickers continues to make headlines.

Sustainable and resilient sector

Sunak’s new measures aim to “strengthen the long-term resilience and sustainability of the sector”.

The plan includes dedicated support for international traders, including:

  • Funds of £2m to help exporters and importers attend global trade shows
  • Five new “agri-food and drink attaches” who will work to remove trade barriers around the world
  • £1m each to promote diary and seafood exports

Sunak said he would “always back British farmers,” while National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters said she was “delighted” the PM had honoured promises he had made to the NFU last year.

Six principles

The PM also wrote an open letter to UK farmers laying out six principles to “ensure British farming is at the heart of British trade.”

These principles included protecting sensitive sectors in future trade deals, upholding the UK’s food and production standards, and removing market access barriers, with the Richmond MP saying that UK farming and produce could not be “an afterthought” in negotiations.

Both the UK-Australia and UK-New Zealand trade deals were poorly received by the NFU and wider food industry, with farmers accusing the government of “giving it all away” to their Australian counterparts, according to the BBC.

‘Farm to Fork’ summit

The support package coincides with Sunak’s UK Farm to Fork summit, hosted today (16 May) in Downing Street, which will see representatives from the food industry come together to discuss the high cost of grocery products.

Lingering inflationary pressures has driven food prices up 17.8% in the past year, according to research from the British Retail Consortium.


According to JustFood, the PM is likely to face pressure over the issue of additional visas, with NFU’s Batters suggesting that the current Seasonal Workers’ Scheme, which allows workers into the UK to pick fruit and other produce, was not fit for purpose.

In the support package, the government said that 45,000 visas would be available for the horticultural sector, up 7,000 on last year’s total of 38,000.

Cabinet split

Any expansion of the scheme is likely to cause an internal government rift, according to the Guardian, as DEFRA and the Home Office are currently negotiating over any expansion.

Home secretary Suella Braverman is said to be “ideologically opposed” to any additional visas being issued and has argued for domestic workers to instead be trained up as part of her initiative to reduce immigration into the UK.


The UK’s top markets watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), is also launching an investigation into the food industry.

Citing “ongoing concerns about high prices” in the sector, the CMA will be investigating whether “weak competition” is adding to the UK’s food inflation problems.

While stressing that they had not yet seen any evidence of specific concerns, the watchdog said it will investigate retailers, suppliers and raw material providers to see if any competition issues can be identified.

In addition, last Friday (12 May), Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee announced an investigation into fairness in the food supply chain.