"Questions remain over AHDB levy ballot"

UK growers have questioned why the official ballot on the horticulture levy of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) will not take place until next year and warning that any attempts to use the timescale to promote AHDB’s activities will be viewed in a negative light by the industry.

On Tuesday 6th October, AHDB confirmed that the number of requests for an official ballot on the levy had exceeded the required threshold but also suggested that, due to the need to appoint an independent company to administer the process, the vote itself would not take place until January 2021.

The ballot was described as “the elephant in the room” by AHDB Chair, Nicholas Saphir at the online FPJ Live event on the same day. Saphir added: “AHDB is duty bound to call a ballot and it is the first ballot that has been called in the history of AHDB… The programme will have to be developed on how the ballot is called. We are duty bound to appoint an independent overseer which is in process now, we then have to verify who is entitled to vote, we have to send out voting papers and we have to allow some time for the arguments to be developed on both sides. My guess is we will see a ballot take place early in January.”

The length of time that AHDB says is necessary to organise the ballot has been queried by the AHDB Petitioners who organised the request for a ballot.

Spalding-based flower grower and co-organiser Simon Redden comments: “We trust that AHDB will not use this ‘verification process’ to deny a vote to those growers who have paid the levy prior to the publication of the Defra review, but due to the challenging economic conditions caused by the weather and Covid-19 in 2019/20 may currently be in arrears in their current levy payments. Such growers must not be disenfranchised at this crucial time.

“We were able to appoint Civica Election Services and launch our own ballot within three weeks, so we can’t understand why it should take an organisation the size of AHDB three months to do the same for a single question. The AHDB has already had six months to respond to the results of Defra’s call for views and have only now just started to talk about ‘serious reform’ when faced with a grower driven ballot which they never anticipated.”

However, the petitioners welcomed comments by Saphir that both sides of the argument would have the chance to put their views to levy payers before the ballot.

Vegetable and potato farmer John Bratley commented: “We have been worried that, as AHDB have always denied us access to the full list of levy payers, they are in a position to spread their own propaganda while denying us a hearing. We welcome Mr. Saphir’s comments that the arguments from both sides will be put forward and we wait to see how this will be achieved.”

Since the requests for a ballot were formally presented to AHDB on 29th September the AHDB Petitioners have continued to receive completed ballot request forms. The brassica and field vegetable sectors have been particularly well represented with the majority of their UK cropped area being represented by requests for a ballot. Vegetable grower Peter Thorold pointed out that such strength of feeling in the industry will make it crucial that Defra Ministers act on the results of the ballot.

“Our poll showed that that 92% of growers felt current AHDB policies are of no, or marginal, benefit to their business, while 80% did not want to pay a statutory levy. AHDB’s claim that 64% of Defra review respondents supported the statutory levy refers to the farming sectors and not horticulture,” he said.

“Even though the results of this ballot are not binding on ministers, failure to recognise them or to implement the reform which is clearly necessary will be seen as a slap in the face by horticulture and the wider farming industry. We therefore hope ministers will keep a close eye on the results. We also hope that the NFU’s failure to support a ballot of levy-payers, most of whom are their members, does not indicate that the organisation is putting the interests of large farming members ahead of hard-pressed growers.”

For more information:
AHDB Review Petitioners

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