Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, has hinted that farmers could continue to hire EU migrants to carry out seasonal agricultural work after Brexit.
In a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, Ms Leadsom, a leading figure in the Leave campaign during the EU referendum, said she was aware how important the labour is to the agricultural industry.
Despite the Government consistently insisting to introduce a tougher immigration system, she added: “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.”
Ms Leadsom has previously suggested that more young Britons could do some of the fruit picking and farm labouring jobs done by EU migrants. Speaking at the Conservative conference in October, she added: "We could get British people doing those jobs and that tempts me to stray into the whole issue of why wages aren't higher and so on.
"My absolute hope is that with more apprenticeships, with more young people being encouraged to engage with countryside matters, that actually the concept of a career in food production is going to be much more appealing going forward."
Elsewhere in her speech at the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday, Ms Leadsom added that EU rules that required farmers to grow three different crops each year should be abandoned after Brexit – allowing 40,000 farmers to grow the crops they want.
Rachael Maskell, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said: "Despite some warm words from Andrea Leadsom today, her department's continued failure to outline a plan for Brexit is deeply disappointing.
"Rural communities, and the farming and fishing industries that help sustain them, deserve better.
"What's more, as the Environmental Audit Committee highlights, the Government's silence on whether important EU environmental protection laws will be maintained is also a matter of serious concern.
"No matter where they live, people in this country deserve legal protections for their right to clean air and water, and I continue to urge the Government to guarantee that existing levels of protection will not be watered down."
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