Farmers are experiencing significant financial consequences as they face severe shortages of seasonal workers, a Tory MP has warned.
Kirstene Hair (Angus) urged ministers to help the sector by reintroducing a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which would allow migrants to work on British farms for a certain period of time each year.
SNP economy spokeswoman Kirsty Blackman raised further Brexit concerns for Scottish farmers as she challenged the Westminster government to reveal how many jobs in the agriculture industry will be lost due to the UK “crashing out” of the EU customs union without a deal.
Treasury minister Mel Stride had earlier told MPs it “would not be possible to precisely assess the impact” on the agriculture sector of the UK leaving the EU customs union and single market as negotiations are ongoing.
In response to a question from Labour’s Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge), Mr Stride added agriculture has a “very high priority” for the government – with the same cash pledged in funds for farming as under the EU until 2022.
Ms Hair later asked during Treasury questions in the Commons: “Do you share my concern that the agricultural sector is facing severe seasonal labour shortages with significant financial consequences already being felt?
“Will you work with your ministerial colleagues to reintroduce a seasonal agricultural workers scheme that worked so successfully in the past?”
Mr Stride replied: “You raise a very important point that the government is acutely aware of and we’re working with Defra in order to look into just that.”
Ms Blackman added: “Given that over 18% of Scotland’s international exports are food and drink related, that’s our top export, this is a really important question for people in Scotland.
“The EU’s average applied most favoured nation tariff for agricultural products is 11.1% – but for individual products 170% on oils, 157% on fruit and veg and 152% on beverages and tobacco.
“How many agricultural jobs does the Treasury think will be lost as a result of crashing out of the customs union without a trade deal?”
Mr Stride said an objective of Brexit negotiations is to lower tariff barriers between the UK and EU, adding: “The tariff you didn’t mention was on whisky, which is currently at 0% and of course if we had an independent Scotland you’d be asking the same questions in the context of the new borders that would be between ourselves and Scotland.”
Ms Blackman replied by saying people in Scotland are used to the UK Government’s “empty assurances”, adding: “The reality is farmers cannot make future plans on the strength of these assurances.”