Defra urged to respect levy vote result


25 January 2022
Petitioners call for R&D injection from government

DEFRA has been urged to respect the results of the official ballots on statutory levies for potatoes and horticulture as its consultation on reforming the AHDB Order 2008 comes to an end.

Ministers say that the consultation, which closed on January 10th, is necessary to allow them to proceed with the proposed changes to the statutory instrument which currently imposes a levy on agriculture and horticulture - including proposals to remove the levy on potatoes and horticulture. However, campaigners against the levy have expressed concerns that the consultation could be used to overturn the result of the previous statutory vote to abolish the levies, the results of which were announced early last year.

Lincolnshire potato grower John Bratley, who was one of the growers who helped trigger the formal ballot, said: “The two ballots had participation rates of 66% of eligible levy payers for horticulture and 64% for potatoes, and returned a clear majority against continuing with the statutory levy; 60% per cent against a horticulture levy and 66% per cent against a potato levy.”

In fact, when all returned ballots are included, the turnouts were closer to 78% and 73% respectively, suggesting that the levy of discontent with the levy among growers is even greater than officially recognised, he said.

“However, the last time Defra conducted its own consultation on AHDB in 2018 it obtained only a 0.5% response from the industry. This latest consultation exercise has been equally badly organised and poorly promoted, and so there is a danger that a vocal minority of growers who support some form of compulsory levy could influence the result," John said. "It is therefore crucial that Defra respects the result of the ballot, which was organised under the existing statutory instrument, and scrap the statutory levy for horticulture and potatoes.”

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Lincolnshire vegetable farmer Peter Thorold said more than 790 potato levy payers voted to abolish the statutory levy and AHDB services as they didn't believe the benefits they received were worth what they saw as "vast sums of money" demanded from them.

“Based on previous experience, the Defra consultation is unlikely to attract more than a handful of responses, so it is crucial that these are not allowed to overturn such a clear mandate to abolish the levy," he said. "Also, previous submissions by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) have cast doubt on their ability to accurately reflect the views of the majority of their grower members in such a consultation.”

The AHDB Petitioners, as they have become known, said they nevertheless welcomed the overall process and the chance to reform horticultural R&D in the United Kingdom. 

Last year agriculture received around £3 billion in direct support payments from the Government. If it set aside just £15 million for R&D in potatoes and horticulture, it would be a good investment in the nation’s long-term health, the petitioners say, and they have called on the Government to set aside this amount, or more, as ‘R&D Funds’ specifically for potatoes and horticulture, saying it could be applied for by individual growers or grower groups when required with a minimum amount of bureaucracy. Such as scheme would not require the involvement of a body like AHDB (or any successor), and growers would still be able to access enhanced tax relief, they add.

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