Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom has hinted that thousands of EU migrants will continue to be hired by British farmers after Brexit.
The Cabinet minister and former Vote Leave campaigner said that she was “committed” to making sure the agricultural sector had “the right people” to help with harvests and other tasks.
In a speech in Oxford, Leadsom also heaped praise on the 80,000 migrants who currently “contribute so much to our farming industry and rural communities”.
But Labour MPs and others pointed out that her remarks stood in contrast to the promises made by Leave campaigners to curb unskilled labour.
Although many farmers voted to leave the EU, the UK food industry relies heavily on foreign labour and it is lobbying hard for loopholes to protect their businesses.
On one estimate, 95% of British berries are picked by EU-born workers. Some farmers claim they can’t attract British-born workers prepared to do such laborious work for low pay.
Addressing the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday, Leadsom signalled that seasonal workers who harvest fruit and vegetables could continue to be hired after Brexit.
“I also know how important seasonal labour from the EU is, to the everyday running of your businesses,” she said.
“I’ve heard this loud and clear around the country, whether in Herefordshire, Sussex, or Northamptonshire, and I want to pay tribute to the many workers from Europe who contribute so much to our farming industry and rural communities.
“Access to labour is very much an important part of our current discussions – and we’re committed to working with you to make sure you have the right people with the right skills.”
Her remarks follow other hints from fellow ministers in recent months, as the farming industry steps up the pressure on her Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for exemptions to match those for high-skilled workers in banking and other sectors.
Brexit Secretary David Davis last month hinted that allowances could be made for the horticultural industry and for “what is necessary for fruit picking”.
Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill also said in December that the Government will take “into account” the needs of the farming sector as part of its move to control numbers.
Chancellor Philip Hammond said in October that he wanted to examine an “appropriate way of looking at the needs of the agricultural sector in a migration control regime between the UK and the EU”.
Some farmers believe that a visa system can be implemented that would allow ‘control’ while maintaining the flow of workers, but others worry the scheme could be overly bureaucratic and add more rather than less ‘red tape’.
Labour MP Angela Smith, who sits on the Commons Environment Select Committee, told HuffPost UK: “It’s a shame Andrea Leadsom didn’t make clear the importance of EU migrant workers to key industries before the Brexit vote.
“Agriculture needs certainty and Leadsom needs to firm up her approach, as the industry will suffer considerably if labour supply is deemed to be at risk.
“But as the NFU Vice President, Minette Batters, pointed out recently, we need a way forward on Brexit that takes a whole economy approach.
“On that basis, Theresa May needs to settle on a negotiating strategy which gives confidence to employers that they will continue to be able to access the labour they need to sustain and grow our economy.”
And fellow Labour MP Phil Wilson MP, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said the minister had exposed the lack of a detailed Brexit plan.
“People like Andrea Leadsom campaigned to leave the EU by focusing on immigration. They are now faced with the harsh reality of the responsibility for the decision that has been made.
“This underlines the lack of strategy amongst Leave campaigners. They don’t know what they’re doing.
“We must protect the economy but we must also listen to the issues that people have regarding immigration. We need a clear plan from Ministers, no more empty rhetoric.”
On Twitter, the reaction was inevitably mixed.
Leadsom, who got through to the final two in the Tory leadership contest last year before stepping aside for Theresa May, refused to take media questions and opted out of a planned TV clip after her speech.
But she revealed that DEFRA was carrying out an “EU Exit Programme” with eight different work streams, “ranging from market access and labour to trade and agricultural land use policy”.
The Environment Secretary also told the conference the Government would invest £160m on an “agricultural technology strategy”, declaring that new machinery and robotics was “where the future of food and farming lies”.
Hammond hinted last month too that one option for farmers to cut migrant labour was through investment in more robots, but few in the industry believe European workers can be dispensed with in the short term.
Leadsom also came under fire from the Green Party as she used her speech to vow a ‘bonfire’ of EU ‘red tape’ that includes rules on protecting biodiversity on farms.
The cross-party Commons Environmental Audit Committee warned on Wednesday that key protections for wildlife risked being weakened after Brexit.