MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee were left infuriated after Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes dismissed their concerns about the shortage of agricultural labour.
Though Ms Nokes said she was ‘listening to representations’ from the sector, her answers to the committee disappointed the chair, Neil Parish, who accused her of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.
At one point, the Minister appeared to be choking back laughter as Mr Parish took her to task for being evasive.
“It is important to remember we are still members of the EU and free movement still prevails”, Ms Nokes said.
“I also reflect upon some of the comments made in the debate on [seasonal workers] on March 1, where a number of members suggested this summer whilst we still have free movement, the industry would cope.
“I want to make sure we listen to the evidence from the NFU, we listen to the evidence which is coming forward from Defra, but it is important I reflect upon the fact it is not only the agricultural industry which is telling me it needs seasonal workers – there is tourism, there is hospitality, catering, and I have to take all of those views into account.”
Ms Nokes also refused to give a date for an announcement on a new seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme – something Defra Secretary Michael Gove promised would be coming ‘shortly’ at NFU conference last month.
Asked whether there was mixed messaging on a future announcement, Farming Minister George Eustice, who was also giving evidence to the committee, said: “I do not think there is actually.
“The NFU conference was not that long ago, it was only in February. We have all been in politics long enough to know shortly is a flexible term. NFU conference does not seem long ago, it seems like just yesterday.”
During the session, Ms Nokes made clear she would be waiting for the full Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, commissioned by the Government and due this September, before making any policy decisions.