End of an era for the MLC

The Meat & Livestock Commission is to be wound up by April 2008 as a result of the radical restructuring of the existing five agricultural levy bodies, the government announced last week.

The levy bodies, consisting of the MLC, the British Potato Council, the Milk Development Council, the Horticulture Development Council and the Home Grown Cereals Authority will be replaced by one statutory body - Levy Board UK - with six new sector-based companies. This follows a review that included a seven-month consultation with the industry by the economist Rosemary Radcliffe.

The meat industry will comprise two sector-specific companies, one for beef and lamb and another for pigs, effectively retaining EBLEX and BPEX. Quality Meat Scotland and HCC/Meat Promotion Wales are be retained and may become separate non-departmental public bodies, with the former answering directly to Scottish ministers, and the latter to the Welsh Assembly. How they will be run remains to be seen, particularly QMS, which at present is controlled by three nominated owners, NFU Scotland, the Scottish Wholesalers and the MLC.

But there was some disappointment at the announcement there is yet to be another review, which will commence once a shadow board of the new over-arching statutory body is appointed. The review, entitled Fresh Start, will be conducted by a chair-designate and the incoming shadow levy board. The review will examine the needs of the different sectors, determine appropriate activities to meet those needs and then determine what such activities mean in terms of levy rates. Levy Board UK, however, will be legally responsible for the collection of the levy but it may delegate it to the sector companies if it wishes, said Lord Rooker, Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food.

But Radciffe's proposal for a service company to cater for the levy boards - effectively another layer of red tape delivering few if any benefits - was rejected. Statutory levies are to be retained, but the general and promotional levies will be merged.

The announcement was broadly welcomed by the meat industry. Kevin Roberts, director-general of the MLC said although he was saddened his organisation would become a casualty of the changes, he was also pleased that there was a bit more clarity on what lies ahead. Roberts urged levy-payers to engage in the Fresh Start review.

NFU president Peter Kendall said he was delighted Defra was giving the industry an opportunity to develop a new levy board structure in the UK. "I believe the new framework outlined today should allow us to address the 'market failure' issues in the industry."

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