Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420
TUESDAY 9 MARCH 1999
420. Would it not be fairer, instead of
the levy just being levied on food retailers, if it was all along
the food chain, so that it included the processors and producers,
particularly as the incidents relating to food safety are more
likely to be that end of the food chain than the other? Would
it not be fairer that we put the levy right across the chain?
(Mr Robertson) Probably not because, if we are
talking about producers, we are talking about an industry that
is in the worst recession for 30 years at the moment. Any extra
costs are not welcome. We should bear this more carefully in mind
and also again the European aspect. No one else in Europe is going
to be paying these levies, so why should we?
421. That is not quite true, because the
Swedes and the Danish companies are already levied. The argument
that we would then be making our farm producers and our processors
anticompetitive within the EU is not wholly a substantiated argument
because already Swedish and Danish companies are levied.
(Mr Robertson) I believe some of the Danish ones
are under legal challenge at the moment. I am not sure of the
result of that. They are again putting the question why should
we pay it and no one else.
422. I can understand that small businesses,
particularly in the agricultural sector, do not wish to see another
cost on them but they must have some responsibility for the fact
that they want to improve consumer confidence and raise standards
in the food chain. That is what the Food Standards Agency is all
about and that is what the public wants. Should they not therefore
be involved in some measure for the contribution for the extra
activities of the Food Standards Agency?
(Mr Robertson) We are concerned about this need
to address consumer confidence because once again I say why do
we not have it in the rest of Europe. Why do the French not have
to invest a lot of money to make consumers confident? I think
it is over-stressed. There is no obligation on farmers, for example,
to suddenly cut their incomes just because they wish to reassure
consumers. This is really not on, especially with the low incomes
we are facing at the moment. We should reconsider whether this
is just a political requirement suddenly after BSE. I think it
is a lot to do with BSE. Therefore, we should address BSE on its
own and not worry so much about this idea of consumer confidence.
In the case of farm assurance, for example, this has been stressed
as a reason for farm assurance. We find now it is only just the
four supermarkets who are requesting farm assurance, also because
they do not have to pay for it, which is another reason to suspect
423. The premise of the Bill is that there
is a lack of public confidence in food. Have you had any representation
that leads you to believe that there is lack of confidence in
food? The consumption of beef is now well above the level before
BSE. Do you have evidence that the public is worried about the
safety of food now?
(Mr Robertson) If we take BSE, yes.
424. Apart from BSE, which is behind us.
Beef consumption is now well above those levels. Do you have evidence
that people are worried, because the premise of this Bill is that
there is serious public concern.
(Mr Robertson) There again, we say what about
the rest of Europe? Why is it not concerned? Should we think about
that? In other words, put extra costs on British farming, if you
like, but you must do the same for Europe. We must get European
agreement. We are after all in a single market now. We should
be obeying the same rules as the Common Market. If we are going
to set up extra rules, is this not in itself against the competition
rules, Articles 85 to 94 of the Treaty of Rome? I throw that at
425. In relation to the levy, do you represent
retail outlets or solely farming?
(Mr Robertson) I am chairman of the Agro-Food
Committee which does cover food.
426. It would cover retail outlets as well?
(Mr Robertson) Yes, although we also have a trade
section so we are a little bit in between.
427. Obviously the levy is a cost. It is
proposed at the moment to be a flat rate cost on retail outlets
of £90 although it is a business cost so I suspect it will
be less than that, given that it is tax allowable. I wonder whether
the Federation has a single position in relation to whether they
object to it or not.
(Mr Robertson) We do not object very much to the
£90 charge but we would like to see it adjusted for larger
outlets basically. We think it is unfair on the very small corner
shop because it is a fairly substantial increase. He is already
having to sell his goods at a higher margin than, say, supermarkets,
for a lower return. We would like to see a gradual transition.
I think this is relatively more expensive but I do not think it
should be particularly relevant to the Food Standards Agency as
such. We have no great problem with that rate as a starting point.
Chairman: Could we
thank you very much indeed for coming along and giving evidence
this morning? I have no doubt in the next two or three weeks you
will see our report and hopefully some of the things you have
said today will be in there.