The MLC’s days are looking numbered under proposed sweeping changes to the agriculture levy system. Simon Mowbray reports

The ink had barely dried on economist Rosemary Radcliffe’s 180-page, eight-month review of the agricultural and horticultural levy bodies last Friday before the major stakeholders were queuing up to praise it.
Although her report contained few surprises, it has since been agreed by the levy boards under review that the former PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner has done a fine job in coming up with workable recommendations.
In particular, a collective sigh of relief from key levy board figures was almost audible in Westminster as Radcliffe, using the offices of Defra to deliver her report, signalled her support for the continuation of statutory levies, shunning the temptation to recommend voluntary payments, the possibility of which was key to her review.
It was not necessarily good news all round, though. As widely anticipated, under Radcliffe’s proposals there will no longer be a place for the Meat & Livestock Commission, the levy-collecting blanket organisation that provides marketing and research services for the English Beef and Lamb Executive (Eblex), the British Pig Executive (BPEX), Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and Welsh meat promotion body Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC).
Instead, it is recommended that a new over-arching, levy-collecting commission - ironically shaped in the image of the MLC - should be set up to oversee the meat bodies and the other existing levy organisations: the Milk Development Council (MDC); the Home-Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA); the British Potato Council (BPC); and the Horticultural Development Council (HDC) - all of which look set to survive intact.
The only fly in the ointment is whether QMS and HCC will sit in the new structure, which will ultimately be overseen by ministers at Westminster, or decide to go it alone under their respective devolved administrations. This will be one of the key questions during the 12-week consultation up to February as the key stakeholders get their heads around what could be in store.
On the face of it, there would be little change for the majority of the levy boards, although the loss of responsibility for the collection of levies by the HGCA, MDC, BPC and HDC will be one fundamental difference. Another will be that the heads of all those boards will now have to report into an all-seeing, all-hearing commissioner, instead of directly to a government minister. One small consolation is that they will at least make up the board of the commission.
At the other end of the scale, a new service-providing company will sit under the levy bodies, offering a key resource for the collection, analysis and dissemination of information, albeit for a fee - paid for from levies - of course.
This is where the softener for the MLC and its key personnel would appear to be, with Radcliffe hinting that the body’s Milton Keynes base could be the ideal location for the new service-providing company. Offering a further olive branch, Radcliffe said: “There are very able people at the MLC and they would continue to have a future.”
The MLC is putting a brave face on it with chairman Peter Barr claiming that Radcliffe’s proposal is “an endorsement of the MLC business model”. He added: “I believe the recommendations could offer us all great opportunities for improved cross-sector co-operation and greater levy-payer involvement in decision making.”
However, questions remain over how easy it will be to keep staff motivated at an organisation that, subject to the plans being approved, will effectively have to summon up the enthusiasm to carry on until the new structure is adopted in March 2007 under the timetable set out in Radcliffe’s report.
As one levy board insider puts it: “There are winners and losers in all of this and it’s not immediately apparent which are which.It may be that some of the levy boards are rejoicing in their salvation but when you take a closer look at the detail you realise that this could end up in a loss of power all round.”
Cynics point to the little talked about “real aim” of the report - an alleged vote-winning exercise in cutting costs and reducing the amount of levy collected from producers.
On the point of future levy levels, Radcliffe admits there is a goal to get the current collective total down from £60m, although she claims the saving is likely to only be £1m in the first year of the new structure.
However, a clear indication of her thinking is found in her views on how advertising. “I think that levy payers’ money is unlikely to be spent on generic advertising. I am not sure that value for money is delivered by that.”
If another hint were needed, Radcliffe added that supplier rationalisation, such as in pigmeat and potatoes, where producers are increasingly supplying larger players under contract, could also reduce the need for levies in future.