Migrants from Ukraine could take the place of EU workers in the aftermath of Brexit, Michael Gove has said.
The UK environment secretary told MSPs at Holyrood that industries could in future have to “think about looking further afield” when recruiting staff.
Some sectors of the UK economy, such as food production and the hospitality industry, have employed a large number of workers from other European countries – with Mr Gove saying they had “relied on labour from abroad”.
In Scotland in particular soft fruit growers and fish processing firms have employed high numbers of workers from other European nations.
In the run-up to Brexit concerns have been raised about the impact leaving the EU could have on their workforce.
But Mr Gove told MSPs on Holyrood’s Rural Economy Committee he was considering what action the UK government could take to help those companies continue to recruit new workers.
SNP MSP Gail Ross had raised the issue with Mr Gove, telling him businesses in “soft fruit, salmon farming and fish processing sectors are particularly dependent on migrant workers”.
She told him: “Some of these sectors have already seen a fall in people wanting to come and work here from the European Union.”
Mr Gove argued that just as the pattern of where migrant workers came from within the EU had changed, firms might in future have to look further afield for staff.
He said: “Over time the course of labour from different parts of the European Union in our agricultural and food production sectors has changed, a wee while ago it tended to be people from Poland and the Baltic states, now increasingly it is people from Romania and Bulgaria. And that reflects the relative stage of economic development of those countries.
“That’s been the experience not just of the UK but other countries in the west of Europe, who have seen people from eastern Europe drop in particular sectors. So we will all have to think about looking further afield.
“It is not just an issue for the UK but an issue for other countries in western Europe. And that means we will need to think in the future how workers from the [sic] Ukraine or other countries who want to come here can do so in an appropriate fashion.”
For companies that rely on seasonal workers – such as the soft fruit industry – Mr Gove added ministers were considering “what the appropriate means in the future might be for facilitating seasonal workers in order to make sure those businesses work”.
But he insisted Scotland should not be allowed to set its own migration policy.
Ms Ross had asked him if it was “time that Scotland had control over its own immigration in order for us to design a system that suits our needs”.
Mr Gove said: “I think the most important thing we should do is to work collectively and collaboratively as the four countries of the United Kingdom in order to make sure that migration policy works in all our interests because our four economies are so highly integrated, and the challenges that face soft fruit growers in Angus are very similar to the challenges that face soft fruit growers in Surrey or in Kent.
“By working together we can ensure we can continue to be an attractive place to invest in and to work.”