Stuart Roberts has said he resigned as chairman of AHDB Beef & Lamb because of increasing concerns over Government interference in how levy payers’ money is spent.
Mr Robert’s resignation has prompted a big reaction from within the red meat industry and has prompted criticism of both Defra and the AHDB leadership.
It has been linked by some within the industry to the Government’s refusal to sign-off a budget set aside for promoting British meat, resulting in the loss of a planned TV advertising campaign.
But Mr Roberts has insisted his resignation ‘not about a specific marketing campaign’.
Neither, he insisted, was it a criticism of AHDB chairman Peter Kendall or of the restructuring and rebranding process underway at AHDB, which he said would be ‘very positive in terms of getting better working together across sectors’.
In an interview with Farmers Guardian: “For me this is about a view I have developed from what I have observed in the six months I have been there – that Government appear to me to be getting more and more involved in signing things off and expressing their views as to how levy payers’ money is spent."
“That is a principle I fundamentally disagree with. It is about levy payers and their sector boards and ultimately the AHDB board being the final determinant of what activities are done with their money.”
Mr Roberts would not be drawn on specific examples of Government interference. However, there has been a lot of tension over the red meat sector’s desire to use levy funds for promotion in recent months and this certainly would appear to be a factor.
The situation also reflects concern the Government is increasingly looking to use levy money to fill gaps in its own budget, set to be slashed further under a fresh spending review coming this autumn.
Asked if his resignation reflected concerns AHDB could have done more to resist this pressure from Defra, he said: “Should AHDB be more robust about supporting and delivering its own business plan? Was I as strong and robust as I could have been? I think the answer is everyone could have done more,” he said.
Responding to criticism by Mr Kendall that he should have discussed his concerns more fully with the board, which could then have raised them with Defra, before resigning, he insisted he had voiced his concerns in the past but acknowledged he ‘could have been more vocal’.
“But where I got the point where I thought my only option was to go public with my concerns, I felt I could not hold a Ministerial appointment and publicly criticise what I think is going on.
“It is all about a principle I believe in which is who should determine what the levy money is spent on. If what I have done kicks off a debate and discussion about that, then hopefully that is an opportunity and something positive will come out of it.
A Defra spokesperson said: “As a public body, AHDB has always been accountable to Parliament for how it spends levy payers’ money.
"Their leadership team is introducing crucial changes to give farmers better value for money. These changes will focus on both the best interests of the industry and delivering for levy payers.”
Mr Roberts’ views on Government interference over levy money has struck a chord in the industry.
The National Sheep Association (NSA) said his decision ‘adds weight to issues that NSA is already hugely concerned about, namely the serious risk of a complete review of the legality of levy money collection and the statutory instrument behind it’.
“Stuart’s resignation also throws the role of the AHDB Beef and Lamb Board into question and suggests that the influence of the Government and the Treasury, at a time of Defra departmental cutbacks, appears to be of a predatory nature, “ NSA chief Executive Phil Stocker said.
He said recent low lamb returns had resulted in more attention being focused on driving domestic demand including generic promotion of lamb.
“We recognise that AHDB Beef and Lamb as long had a process of having to have such promotional activity signed off by Defra, but this year that sign-off process has stagnated at ministerial level, which is a hopeless state of affairs that is not helping our industry one bit,” Mr Stocker said.
“To witness this level of ministerial intervention this year, at a time when the industry is in great need, is inexcusable.”
He praised Mr Roberts for his ‘principled decision’ and said ‘serious discussion’ was now needed over the use of levy money, the influence of the Government and the role and responsibilities of the AHDB Beef and Lamb Board.
NFU livestock chairman Charles Sercombe said: “As a sheep farmer myself I can say that hundreds of farmers like me will be angry that promotional funding of beef and lamb by AHDB has not been approved by Government.
“It is totally unacceptable for a whole planned marketing campaign to be put in jeopardy by Government dithering and delay.
“For the NFU it is a fundamental point of principle that levy payers should decide how their levy money is spent.”