Jeremy Hunt has refused to assure farmers he will commit to stop Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.
The Tory leader candidate sought to assuage the NFU’s concerns after president Minette Batters wrote to Hunt in an open letter urging the new Prime Minister to “commit to doing everything in their power to avoid a hugely damaging no-deal Brexit”.
In response Hunt reiterated his Brexit stance, in which he hopes to negotiate a new Brexit deal with the EU, but is also willing to prepare for a no deal if negotiations fail.
Last week he pledged to release £6billion funding for agricultural exporters to mitigate the damage from a no-deal Brexit, which he called a “No Deal Relief Programme”.
In a wide-ranging response to Batters, Hunt also seemed to wrongly suggest that EU immigration rules were to blame for seasonal worker shortages, by insinuating the UK could recruit more workers by being able “to design our own immigration system”.
As a member of the EU, the UK was always able to design its own immigration programme for non-EU worker schemes. It was in fact under David Cameron’s leadership that the government scrapped a seventy year-old Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which allowed for over 20,000 non EU workers to harvest British fruit and veg each year.
Then president of the NFU, Meurig Raymond, said at the time the decision would have a “devastating impact on the horticulture sector in the UK,” which has since suffered further difficulties in recruiting seasonal workers.
Hunt told Batters: “You rightly say that the immigration system should maintain access to both a permanent and seasonal workforce, for example during peak harvest. I would use our ability to design our own immigration system to achieve that.”
Hunt backed many of the proposals in the Agriculture Bill, continuing Michael Gove’s flirtation with allowing Crispr gene-editing technology in UK agriculture, as well as not using food standards as a bargaining chip in striking new trade deals.
“I would not lower standards in pursuit of trade deals and I would use every tool to make sure the standards are protected,” Hunt said.
“I am happy to confirm my support for more efficient and productive farming including necessary government support. Policy must always be based on sound science, particularly as we explore the opportunities that gene editing can present in reducing our reliance on plant protection products."
He continued: “Science must also guide us when we consider the safety of pesticides. The ability to develop agricultural and environmental policies that suit our own national interests is one of the main reasons why we have to deliver on our promise to leave the EU.”