HL Deb 07 May 1999 vol 600 cc952-4

1.51 p.m.

Lord Carter rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th April be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the British Potato Council was established in May 1997 under the provisions of the Potato Industry Development Council Order 1997. Its statutory functions can be summarised as commissioning or assisting research and development, collection and dissemination of statistical and marketing information, the development of exports and generic promotion of potatoes including seed potatoes.

The legal status of the council is an executive non-departmental public body. It is currently funded by a dual levy on growers and first purchasers. There is no public funding of the council although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food purchases statistical information from the BPC.

During the past year, the council has spent some £3.1 million or marketing and provision of information to both the industry and consumers. Over the same period some £1.9 million was invested in research and development.

"British Potatoes in the New Millennium" will launch the current season in London on 19th May—I hope to be at that event—and in Glasgow on 15th June. The council also sponsors British Chip Week and, with the Sea Fish Industry Authority, the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year competition.

On the export promotion side, the council has another success story to tell. The council's new database of British exporters directs overseas buyers to those best placed to meet their requirements. Despite the strong pound and high prices for the current season's crop, our potato exports are estimated to be some 4,000 tonnes ahead of last season at over 150,000 tonnes.

I turn now to the order. As I said, the British Potato Council is currently financed by a dual levy on growers and first purchasers. The area levy applies to producers of one hectare or more of potatoes. The purchaser levy is paid by firs.: purchasers of 100 tonnes or more of potatoes per annum and is known as the tonnage levy. Co-operatives and commission agents may recover the tonnage levy from the next purchaser. Many merchants do not like the tonnage levy arrangement and complain that it can give: a competitor an unfair advantage if he is not a first purchaser.

Because of the number of complaints directed to the council, it undertook to review the tonnage levy arrangements and to develop a fairer system. Although this issue could have been addressed at the first statutory review of the council in the year 2000, the strength of feeling among those paying the tonnage levy was such that the review was completed in 1998. The council has asked that the amended levy arrangements proposed in the review be introduced for the levy year commencing 1st July 1999.

This order covers the amended tonnage levy arrangement. It removes the right of recovery of the tonnage levy by co-operatives and commission agents and requires that the levy is paid each time potatoes are sold, except where the purchaser is a catering establishment or a retail seller of potatoes unless such purchasers buy direct from the farm gate. British agriculture departments consulted the industry on the proposals to find the majority in favour of them. Agriculture Ministers agree the rate of levy to be set each year. For the 1998–99 season, the tonnage levy was 20p per tonne. The council estimates that the changes to the tonnage levy would add some 300 extra purchasers to the levy base, and they could reduce this levy to provide an equivalent level of income. The amendment to the levy structure should therefore be cost-neutral for the whole industry. To this end, for the 1999–2000 levy year and in anticipation of this amendment order coming into force, the BPC has asked agriculture Ministers to approve a tonnage levy of 15p per tonne. This is a 5p per tonne levy reduction from the previous year.

The order also enables the council to add these additional purchasers to their register and obtain the required information and returns.

Finally, Article 8 is an additional provision at the request of the council on advice from its Scottish lawyers. Under Scots law, there is a need to clarify the position on evidential provision with regard to approvals given by Ministers. Article 8 accomplishes that. For completeness and also to permit the documents to he treated as prima facie evidence, the amendment applies also to England and Wales.

In conclusion, I should like to quote from the debate that preceded the setting up of the council. I have long been a supporter of the concept of development councils, and in that debate I said: I have long supported the concept of development councils in agriculture. Agriculture is divided into small units; development work is for the benefit of all farmers and therefore all should pay. The only way to do that is through some form of compulsory levy". —[Official Report, 3/2/97; col.1466.1.

I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th April be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Lord Carter).

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms did his best to persuade your Lordships that the order is totally non-controversial. That is by no means always true of the potato levy but it is in this case. However, I cannot resist drawing the attention of the House and Hansard to a fine example of the parliamentary draftsman's art in the order. Article 3(e) states: immediately after the definition of 'producers' co-operative' there shall be inserted the following definition— … 'subsequent purchaser' means a person, not being a first purchaser, who would be a first purchaser of raw potatoes if the words 'where those potatoes have not previously been sold or delivered to an agent' were omitted from the definition of 'first purchaser', but does not include … a catering establishment, or … a retail seller of potatoes". It is difficult to imagine that that could not somehow have been phrased more neatly. However, I shall not oppose the order on that ground.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I read right through the order and it seemed crystal clear.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at three minutes before two o'clock.