Farming comment: Levy payers left powerless

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ONE of the least newsworthy pieces of news last week was the research that divided the population into seven social classes where previously there was believed to be just three; upper middle and lower.

It reminded me of the old farm grieve who equated work with physical graft. His rhetorical question on hearing such theoretical information was: “Don’t they have any real job they can do?”

My passing interest in the new categorisation of society was to see if there was now a special category for “quango” man or woman. That is not a flippant thought as, in yet another little known fact, quangos and their relations – such as non-departmental government bodies – now directly control more of the national budget than do elected politicians.

I should say at this point that I have no objection to those who spend their lives serving on public bodies. There are many able, worthy and perfectly fine people doing these jobs, none of which are tremendously well rewarded.

My concern is that as quango land grows, democracy dies. This week saw the appointment of two new board members to Quality Meat Scotland. I am sure that both will prove to be very good appointments and I would pause specifically to congratulate Louise Welsh in breaking the all-male domination of this particular body. I would emphasise the following comments do not reflect on both appointments.

The question is who appointed them? They were not appointed by the levy payers, who contribute some 60 per cent of the QMS budget. No-one asked the sheep, pig or beef producers if these people were the right people to make decisions on their behalf.

Neither for instance does the potato grower, the cereal farmer, the soft fruit producer, nor the man who milks the cows, get any direct say in deciding who sits on the boards of the Potato Council, the Home-Grown Cereals Authority, the Horticultural Development Council, or DairyCo.

All the primary producer does is pay over his or her dues.Decisions as to who sits on these boards are made by the Public Appointments body, which no doubt shuffled through the applications before passing a few possible names to an interview panel prior to handing its recommendations to the minister to make the final choice.

It could be argued that such a system can winnow out the mad, bad or even just the dangerous to know. It eliminates anyone who might be described as awkward and promotes only those in the mainstream or those that are the proverbial safe pair of hands and to use another cliché those that will not rock the boat.

This last injunction also covers the “thou shalt not” range of issues. For example, thou shalt not criticise the government. In fact, if you know what is good for you and want to get another quango post and possibly make a career in quango land, you will behave yourself and work alongside government.

Rosemary Radcliffe, who helped set up the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board under which the various sector boards operate, managed to achieve quite a double by doing so. First, she helped remove producer power by the elective process listed above and, second, she helped remove any opportunity of these organisations to criticise government. For those that do not know her name, Radcliffe, was a former PwC partner who was appointed to the Northern Rock board in 2005.

The current system is a dumbing down of democracy and I believe it runs counter to what the levy payer wants and needs. The old Potato Marketing Board – whose members were voted for by producers – was none the worse for Jack Merricks being elected to it, despite his hatred of the organisation. Other worthies such as “Scrap the Board” Douglas McCrone also confirmed it was better to have critics inside the tent than outside.

Recently, the Potato Council has been criticised by Tim O’Malley, the managing director of Nationwide Produce. Not only might this have ruined his chances of being appointed to the industry body in which he is a major player, but also the response to the criticism came not from any of those sitting on the board – who supposedly run the show – but from the top paid employee.

If I was a levy payer to any one of the development boards, I would be asking how my views could be directly represented because currently the boards are full of Yes men (and, more rarely, women). If any levy payers producing milk, potatoes, vegetables or anything else care to check, they might find themselves on the precariat – which is the lowest rung of the seven on the new social ladder.