The Home Office should be stripped of its powers to allocate visas to seasonal agricultural workers, according to a Conservative former environment secretary.

George Eustice described the department as being an “intransigent blockage” as he outlined the challenges faced by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The current seasonal worker scheme has allowed for at least 45,000 places per year in 2023 and 2024 and it can be increased by another 10,000 a year if decided necessary by the Government.

Speaking during a Commons debate on farming on Monday, Mr Eustice said: “Most of the challenges that Defra faces when it comes to agriculture, I’m afraid to say, are other Government departments, and the first of those departments is the Home Office.”

Mr Eustice said there has not been a Government response to the Shropshire review, which examined labour shortages in the food supply chain.

The review made several recommendations, including providing long-term security for the seasonal worker scheme and considering removing the cap on the total number of visas.

Mr Eustice said: “While ministers won’t be able to say so, it’s pretty obvious that the Home Office, as usual, are the intransigent blockage in this problem and what we really need to see in my view is a machinery of government change where the Home Office is stripped of its powers when it comes to visa policy for seasonal agricultural workers, so that the policy in its entirety is simply moved to Defra, and Defra ministers no longer have to waste their time trying to explain things to Home Office ministers, which is often where the problem lies.”

Mr Eustice further said that Defra “understands trade and some of the technical issues around trade” far better than officials in the Department for Business and Trade.

He said: “Defra ministers are armed with real intellectual power within Defra, real experience of dealing with trade negotiations and I hope that current ministers and any other aspiring ministers in this place will always draw on the power that they have within Defra in order to face down some of the more naïve approaches that we’ve seen in past from the Department of Business and Trade.”

Opening the debate, Wales Office minister Fay Jones outlined UK Government efforts to support farmers.

She said: “We have now announced we will be delivering on our promise to cut the planning red tape that’s stopping farmers from diversifying.

“In April, we will lay legislation so that farmers can create bigger farm shops, commercial space and outdoor sports venues.

“Similarly, farmers have raised the often unfair pricing they receive for their products. So a fortnight ago we laid new regulations for the dairy sector and we’re launching a review of the poultry sector.

“We will bring forward similar regulations for the pig sector later this year, with regulations for the egg sector to follow.”

Conservative former minister Sir Geoffrey Cox questioned how the Government’s emphasis on food security works alongside sustainable farming incentive (SFI) activities, adding: “(They) arouse considerable concern in the farming community that it would also be better, a more paying proposition to give up farming altogether under the SFI scheme.”

He added: “What we have to do through the SFI is start to consider how we encourage people to produce food, and not not to produce it.”

SFI pays farmers for taking actions that support food production, farm productivity and resilience, whilst protecting and enhancing environment.

Ms Jones replied: “Defra is actively monitoring the take-up of SFI schemes with food production in mind. So he raises a key concern that the department is, I believe, already addressing.”

For Labour, shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said the Government’s “bungled” transition from EU farming payments has been “another source of financial misery” for farmers.

He said: “Far too many have seen incomes plummet as BPS (basic payment scheme) is phased out. Tenant farmers, in particular, feel the new scheme doesn’t work for them.”

Mr Reed said the principles behind the Government’s Environmental Land Management scheme (Elms) “makes sense” but criticised the “chaotic” and “bureaucratic” implementation.

Conservative former environment secretary Therese Coffey said the Government must stick to its target of ensuring 70 per cent of agricultural land and 70 per cent of holdings participating in ELMS by 2028.

She added: “In terms of one of the other aspects that I think has worried farmers, potentially in terms of food security, is about some farmers considering they should opt out of food production in its entirety.

“That is not something that ELMS was designed to do and it’s my belief that we should consider putting a restriction on how much land could be taken out of that sort of production because there is opportunity to improve productivity of much of the aspects of our farming sector in order to get that food security which we all believe is vital.”