Politicians are "detached from the real world" if they think British workers can fill the gap should foreign staff be prohibited from working in the UK, industry figures have said following a ministerial attack on companies that employ large numbers of foreign workers.
Home secretary Amber Rudd told the Conservative Party conference this month that no foreign workers should "take jobs British people should do" and wrote in a consultation paper that companies would have to publish the proportion of international staff they employ. But following an outcry the Government has backed off, saying the data will be used to inform policy rather than to "name and shame".
When challenged at a Tory conference fringe event about the likely impact of immigration controls on the food and farming sector following Britain's departure from the EU, Defra secretary of state Andrea Leadsom said: "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."
But also speaking at a fringe event, ex-Defra secretary Owen Paterson said: "The most angry people I met in my time at Defra, by far, were the fruit and vegetable growers who were being deprived of a scheme called the (Seasonal) Agricultural Workers Scheme by the existing prime minister when she was home secretary." He added: "Our locals won't do it," arguing that once the UK is fully in control of immigration it can introduce a permit system tailored to industries' needs.
Responding to Rudd's comments, HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin said: "We're taking everything coming out of Government with a pinch of salt right now. We don't see it as workable. There's too many people and industries affected and we're going to lobby very hard against it." He said a plan to properly measure the size of the ornamental horticulture industry could be the way to influence policy "because at the moment we're missing a trick".
The £20bn motor industry has the ear of Government, Curtis-Machin pointed out. "Do we have to be on that level to get proper attention? We know we're worth £6bn in retail and production and £8bn through tourism, so that's £14bn. We need to join up the figures more, especially since Lantra and Defra stopped collecting them."
He added: "We think Brexit is an opportunity and that's why we're marshalling our forces to power ahead. This is the best opportunity to get heard. We have a big story to tell while the Government looks at subsidies. We have a lot to offer." He suggested that ornamental horticulture is well placed to win Government money should ministers decide on environmental payments to replace Common Agricultural Policy subsidies.
Hayloft Plants owner Derek Jarman said: "I'd be proud to name and employ my foreign workers. They are good workers and do work the English won't do - any horticulture employer would tell you that. If I advertise for English workers it's a waste of time. This shows the detachment of the cabinet from the real world."
He added: "In horticulture, every zero-hours National Living Wage contract for a foreign worker supports one English worker on a higher-rate fixed contract. If the Government sends them back or shames them they will lose English jobs one for one in our situation. If the Government doesn't listen to business it will be brought down by its own supporters."
Jarman suggested companies and trade bodies should lobby local Conservative MPs and said he will question Rudd at a Worcestershire Conservatives meeting at which she is due to speak later this month. Demand has held up since the Brexit vote, he added, despite putting prices up to combat exchange rate changes, which he said supermarkets cannot do. But he said foreign workers are losing out by 30 per cent because of exchange rates.
British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward said: "The problem remains with recruiting British workers and that the work is in places with low populations. Also, in areas like the South East in particular, unemployment rates are low and there's plenty of competition from other sectors and seasonal work with long hours doesn't fit with what most people in this country are looking for. We need a permit scheme that is open-ended and flexible but with the necessary controls built in."
Grower and NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper suggested that the Government "is exploring different options and setting up negotiating positions" with its latest statements, which she will shortly discuss with Home Office officials. "We need access to reliable, competent seasonal workers who will come and do the work then go home again," she said.
"I see this as an easy win for the Government. Permanent workers are harder but right now we don't just have a skills shortage, we have a labour shortage. We will always have to bring workers in from elsewhere, skilled or unskilled."
As to how the sector would cope with a "resident labour market test" as a condition for granting work permits, she said: "We have plenty of evidence on this. You can advertise jobs locally till you're blue in the face. Unemployment rates are currently lower in rural areas than in cities."
A Government representative said: "We are determined to get the best deal on Brexit for the British people, not least our farmers who play a vital role in our country. The secretary of state has underlined the need for continuity for farmers and together with her ministerial team is looking forward to working with industry, rural communities and the wider public to shape our plans for food, farming and the environment outside the EU.
"On seasonal agricultural workers, this is one of a range of issues being looked as part of preparations to leave the EU. We are about to begin these negotiations and it would be wrong to set out unilateral positions in advance."