Speaking in a short debate in the House of Commons, immigration minister Phil Woolas said government policies needed to recognise that, where necessary, migration can address labour shortages when they arise. "The public would not understand what was happening if they saw that fruit and crops were not being picked," he said.
Woolas said he had to report back to the European Commission by the end of the year on what impact the possible relaxation of current restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers' access to the labour market could have on labour supply.
He acknowledged that the labour issue had wider implications, for instance on food miles and carbon footprints. "We cannot square those circles without a vibrant, prosperous British agriculture sector," he said. "That means that we must have labour. There is no getting away from that.
"Technology can, of course, make changes - but I have yet to see a machine that can pick strawberries as well as a group of students."
The debate was raised by Hugh Robertson, Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent. He said SAWS had been "a fantastic success" for more than 40 years and should be nurtured and encouraged. "This is not an immigration and asylum issue," he said. "Participants are not looking to earn the right to stay here or to disappear into the black economy."
He called on the Government to give growers some breathing time before a replacement scheme was agreed. He said: "That could be achieved by extending the life of SAWS ... and increasing the number of people allowed into the country under the scheme."
Robertson said there was also an opportunity to channel more inactive British citizens into horticulture. "The Spanish example of a fixed, discontinuous contract, which allows a worker to have a contract with a company but only be paid when work is available, is worth examining," he said.
He added: "The minister has the opportunity to take action now to prevent a disaster a year or 18 months hence."
NFU chief horticulture adviser Philip Hudson said Woolas' response gave him cause for optimism. "He showed a willingness to listen to the industry's concerns," he said.