Eustice and Goodwill to face EFRA committee to give Defra view on Brexit worker issues

Defra minister George Eustice MP, and Robert Goodwill MP, minister of state for immigration at the Home Office are to give evidence to MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee, which has launched an inquiry into the challenges to the food supply chain from shortages of workers.

Defra minister George Eustice
Defra minister George Eustice

Some 80,000 horticultural workers come from outside the UK. Previous evidence givers such as HTA adviser David Brown warned that there will be a shortage of labour post-Brexit in 2019.

The horticulture sector is facing a labour crisis with free movement of workers within the EU expected to end after Brexit completes in 2019. Figures from Defra's agricultural accounts put the value of paid labour at £2.5bn in 2015, equating to around 14% of total financial inputs.

The number of regular employees in UK agriculture, excluding seasonal and casual labour, is 115,000. If seasonal and casual labour is included, the total rises to 182,000. Office for National Statistics figures show more than 22,000 EU-born migrants working in agriculture in 2015, rising 41% since 2011. This is around 20% of the 115,000 regular employees in the sector.

Seasonal EU workers form a much larger proportion. Brown told the EFRA committee last month that a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is required "to fill the hole".

Meanwhile, the European Scrutiny and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committees has met jointly to take evidence from Eustice to hear his evidence on the implications of Brexit for fisheries and agriculture.

Committee chairmen Bill Cash MP and Neil Parish MP questioned Eustice on how Defra will tackle Brexit's bureaucratic challenges.

Eustice said 80% of laws Defra deals with are EU laws and 45% of all EU laws fall within Defra's remit.

He added that other departments are looking to Defra "for answers on Brexit issues" because Defra has called up so many staff to work on Brexit and sector-related free trade agreements.

In answer to a question from Parish, Eustice said because food and farming, at £100bn a year, was the UK's "largest manufacturing industry", Defra would not allow the financial sector or car industry to stop Defra sectors getting a "fair share" of trade deals.

Eustice said that in the past, Defra policy had "simply been ceded to the EU". When Parliament "takes back control, you also take back responsibility", he said.

Parish said new trade deals may open the door to lower standards of product being imported, such as chlorine-dipped chickens.

Eustice added the UK had moved more towards provenance and higher standards than the US's "lower cost of production" model. Parish interpeted Eustice's answer to "more consumer resistance than trade resistance because I don't think we will eb able to stop it [imports under World Trade Organisation rules]."

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