(Bloomberg) -- Michael Gove was a leading Brexit champion but as a Cabinet minister in charge of agriculture he wants foreign farm workers to stay.
That might seem a strange stance given his role in the 2016 referendum -- where immigration was a leading cause for the leave campaign he helped lead. But now he’s in a tough spot as rural affairs secretary because migrant works from the EU are already fleeing and putting the industry at risk.
On Tuesday he set out plans to provide special immigration rules for those British farms that rely on migrant workers to ensure they remain profitable as the U.K. quits the EU. His department will launch a consultation in the coming weeks on post-Brexit farming subsidies that will include a transition period for funding and labor, Gove told the National Farmers’ Union in Birmingham.
Gove has staged something of a political comeback since he bungled his leadership bid back in 2016 and fell out with his ally and friend Boris Johnson, who went on to become foreign secretary. It was Prime Minister Theresa May who brought him back into the fold in a reshuffle after the election and put him at helm of an industry that is among the most vulnerable to Brexit.
His key challenge is to keep alive the farming industry, which generates over 110 billion pounds ($125 billion) a year and employs one in eight people in the U.K. but has already been losing workers since the referendum.
“As we prepare to leave the EU, and free movement ends, we need to take special account of the needs of agriculture. Farming currently depends on access to labour from abroad - both seasonal and more permanent,” he said, noting that 90 percent of vets in abattoirs are from the 27 other EU nations.
Already, the industry is seeing the impacts of the country’s decision to leave the EU. Labor providers for horticulture farms couldn’t recruit enough numbers of seasonal workers last year, with the average shortfall seen at 12.5 percent, an NFU survey showed this month.
While U.K. farmers will “need continued access to skilled labor” in the short term, Gove said the industry should ultimately seek to move towards a machine based way of working so that less workers are required.
The consultation document will offer farmers a less bureaucratic and more flexible subsidy payment system than the one currently in place, he said. Instead of paying EU-style subsidies based on the land size, the new system will pay towards provision of public goods, including caring for the environment, he said.
“Paying people simply according to the size of their landholding drives up the cost of land, which ties up capital unproductively and acts as a barrier to entry to new talent, impeding innovation and holding back productivity growth.”
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