Lord Lawson criticised over comments relating to immigration post-Brexit
Tory Party grandee Lord Nigel Lawson has been blasted for suggesting that City bankers should be prioritised over unwanted "Romanian fruit pickers" after Brexit, with senior Conservatives also distancing themselves from the remarks.
The former chancellor said that the worries about access to financial talent were overblown, and that bankers would be welcomed with open arms over European farmhands once free movement agreements are scrapped.
Speaking on a Brexit panel in London, Lord Lawson said: "There will be some changes on the immigration front ... but it's people like the Romanian fruit pickers that we don't need. It is not the highly skilled people that the City wants - who will always be welcome."
Lord Lawson made the statement in reference to worries raised by Barclays boss Jes Staley, who said immigration policy was arguably a bigger sticking point for the industry than crucial passporting rights - which currently give firms open access to the EU single market for financial services.
However, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron described Lord Lawson's comments as "edged with racism", adding that he has shown "incredible naivety" about the economic impact of Brexit.
Mr Farron told the Press Association: "Not only are his comments edged with racism, they also fail to understand the need for high-skilled and low-skilled labour across the country - with sectors like healthcare, education, construction and farming dependent on immigrants who come to the UK, pay there taxes and work hard."
Tory MP Neil Parish - chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee - distanced himself from Lord Lawson's remarks and admitted that "UK agriculture could not function without foreign labour".
He said: "We've already seen increased difficulty for businesses recruiting foreign labour since Brexit. If a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) is not in place to fill the void left by freedom of movement, we will likely see food rot in our fields."
Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, added that farmers could be forced to relocate abroad - to regions including Eastern Europe, North Africa, and even South America - in order to be closer to an available labour pool.
"We've got the skills, we've got the logistics (to move), but it's not good for the British economy."
He added: "This is one of the biggest concerns of the industry, that people in positions of influence do not get some of these issues, or do not get the significance of the availability of this labour."
There are worries that Prime Minister Theresa May's targets, which aim to bring annual net migration down to the "tens of thousands" from current estimates of around 273,000, will also put key industries which are heavily reliant on migration at risk.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd confirmed this week that businesses would be consulted on plans for a new immigration system over the summer.
A Conservative spokesman said: "These are Lord Lawson's personal views."