Michael Gove’s appointment as Defra secretary has been greeted with cautious optimism by the soft fruit industry, for which the issue of seasonal labour access is of crucial importance.
Representatives from three of the UK’s biggest berry suppliers, Berry Gardens, BerryWorld and Angus Soft Fruits, as well as the British Summer Fruits trade body, reacted to the former justice secretary’s surprise appointment with a mixture of positivity and reservations related to his stance on Brexit.
“I greeted Michael Gove’s appointment with cautious optimism,” said Mike Jobbins, head of projects at BerryWorld. “My caution comes from the fact that his original Brexit desire was to leave the EU. Currently the soft fruit industry has real concerns about the long-term retention and availability of staff.”
However, Jobbins speculated that having spent a year out of headline politics Gove would be “keen to re-establish a positive reputation”, having been sacked from his former role as justice secretary by Theresa May last year.
In 2014, when he was education secretary, Gove was also ordered to apologise to May following a feud over the Trojan Horse operation to tackle extremism in schools.
Jobbins added that his company, as well as looking for the government to ensure sufficient access to seasonal workers, was “keen to have a Defra secretary who supports the retention of a frictionless international and European border and customs control system.”
Angus Soft Fruits
At the Royal Highland Show, which ran from 21 to 24 June, Angus Soft Fruits became one of the first fresh produce companies to meet the newly-appointed minister, discussing the need for a seasonal work permit scheme. The company believes this should be put in place by September 2018, in line with recommendations from British Summer Fruits.
Reflecting on the meeting, managing director Lochy Porter, said he felt assured that being from the north east and therefore familiar with the importance of seasonal labour to fish factories, Gove understood the issues at hand.
He added that the new farming secretary was aware of the recent report Andersons report, commissioned by British Summer Fruits, which warned that the price of soft fruit could skyrocket if the government doesn’t take action to address an impending labour crisis. And he said that Gove was “very receptive to the soft fruit industry”, coming across as “very approachable, interested, keen to listen and to understand the issues”.
British Summer Fruits
Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, struck a more cautious tone, pointing to the fact that Gove was a “convinced Brexiteer” and saying “the jury is out”.
“I am not sure as yet how he will square the circle of frictionless international trade with an exit from the single market and the customs union – both of which he supports,” he said.
But Olins did praise Gove for being “energetic” and “an intellectual heavy weight”, saying he was hopeful that Gove would be “keen to make an impression in his new job following a career reversal”.
Berry Gardens chose not to comment directly on Gove’s appointment, but CEO Jacqui Green stressed the importance of taking positive steps sooner rather than later “to ensure the confidence overseas workers have in our industry is not eroded further”.
“Where once there were 10 applicants for one job, now there are three,” she said.