Campaigners against the compulsory levy on horticulture to fund the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) have reacted angrily to suggestions that, despite a clear majority vote to abolish the levy and recognition of the vote’s outcome by Secretary of State George Eustice, growers could still be charged a levy for the 2021/22 financial year.
The comments came as industry speculation suggests that the amount of Parliamentary time required to amend the statutory instrument means that the legal basis for the compulsory levy may not be repealed before the end of the current financial year.
Spalding-based Flower Grower Simon Redden commented: “Despite receiving an income from growers of around £7 million last year and sitting on reserves of £5 million, AHDB Horticulture is now suggesting that it needs another £7 million from hard-pressed growers to wind-up its operations, at a time when some of the largest names in horticultural production are sadly closing their businesses or completely changing their cropping patterns to cope in an increasingly cut-throat sector.
“It is not as if AHDB have not been aware that the vote could see the abolition of the levy. If they don’t have contingency plans to this effect, it further questions the validity of an organisation that continually lectures farmers and growers on becoming more commercial. This attempt to continue to milk the industry for funds also poses serious questions for the other sectors which have also been promised votes.”
Vegetable grower Peter Thorold added: “This is no more than a cynical ploy by the AHDB to try and cling to power for another year when growers have voted to abolish their sector. The fact that AHDB waited for 3½ months from our request for a ballot before instigating the ballot was just a foot dragging exercise, and this latest actions suggest that AHDB is simply unable to accept the clear ‘no’ vote by levy payers.
“The administration associated with closing the sector is essentially a desktop operation and the reserves the organisation holds should be used to cover such eventualities. The vote clearly showed that most growers no longer wish to pay the levy, and the likelihood is that some, if not most, may simply refuse to pay. Where AHDB would stand in such a situation could be open to debate. We urge those within AHDB, and elsewhere in the industry, who seem to be in denial about the outcome of the levy vote, to accept the loss of the compulsory levy and work towards the future. It is telling that press reports show that even some AHDB grower board members are questioning Nicholas Saphir’s handling of the situation, which is making AHDB ‘look shifty.’”
Furthermore, is has now come to light that AHDB did not count 138 (14.6%) of the votes cast. AHDB says these votes came from horticultural businesses which are registered with AHDB but from which no levy payment had been received by 10 February 2021 when the vote ended. Of the 940 votes cast, the 138 discounted are most likely to be struggling to pay their levy. In fact, AHDB has admitted that it sent ballot papers to 1,463 ‘Active Accounts’ even though the number of levy payers in 2019/2020 was only 1,281.
The 138 voters appear to have been disqualified without being notified, posing questions about why they were disqualified, who ratified the ballot list and who notified them of their disqualification.
Vegetable and potato grower John Bratley said: “We have been trying to get details of the uncounted votes from AHDB for some time, and they have now admitted that almost 15% of the votes received were not counted. We believe that these votes would have further strengthened the ‘no’ result, as smaller growers are more likely to vote ‘no.’
“Now we learn that AHDB is seeking to extract another year’s levy out of growers, almost in revenge for voting them out of office. This displays breath-taking arrogance will not succeed, and we urge other representative organisations to distance themselves from this behaviour before their own image is affected.”