Fear over promotional spending cuts

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SOME Scottish farmers could see promotion of their produce halted by the government as the spending of more than £5 million of levy money is currently under threat.

The money is part of the income of bodies such as English beef and lamb promoter Eblex and the Potato Council and the problem is the amount they have allocated to marketing.

Using public money – and producer levies becomes public money as soon as they are paid over – for marketing is tightly controlled under rules brought in by the UK government in a programme to freeze public spending.

This freeze has now changed into “control with permission” needed from government for a whole range of spending priorities, including inward and outward missions and the employment of consultants.

Ironically only this week the UK government has been encouraging exports and Eblex was to have been visited by the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson on its promotional stand at the SIAL food fair in Paris.

In another irony, the need for levy board compliance has emerged only after the UK government, and those of the devolved nations, recently gave the thumbs up to a levy increase which was partially based on spending more money on publicity and promotion, which, because of those priorities, was supported by levy payers.

The problem does not affect the main levy organisation in Scotland, Quality Meat Scotland, as it does not come under UK spending guidelines.

It does, however, affect the Potato Council, the Home Grown Cereals Authority and the Horticultural Development Association, all of which are UK bodies with levies paid by Scottish growers.

Guy Attenborough, of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, the umbrella body for the levy funded bodies, explained that, although almost all of the board’s funding of £58 million was raised by producer levies, because this is a form of taxation AHDB was classified as a non-departmental public body and thus came under government controls.

He estimated that approximately £5m of the total income was going through the scrutiny process.

It is understood that the matter has already reached 10 Downing Street but so far no resolution has emerged.

Reacting to the possible ban on using levy money for promotion, a spokesman for NFU Scotland said the body would be concerned if, as a result of government scrutiny, producer levy funding ring-fenced for marketing purposes was not spent in that area.

“We believe these funds are generated from the farming and food industries and should therefore not be constrained by any guidelines,” he said.