Recognised Organisations: Competition Exclusions

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 13th November 2018.

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Question proposed, That the schedule be the Second schedule to the Bill.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We are getting there, slowly, Sir Roger. I want to pick up the point made by the Minister on clause 22 about how organisations will be identified. I am a Co-operative MP; I put that on the record. The Co-operative movement has been somewhat wary of this part of the Bill—whether it is clause 22 or, in this case, schedule 2, on which I have the opportunity to make these points.

I welcome the amendments that the Minister has moved, at least recognising that the Co-operative movement has been unhappy to be labelled as purely part of the competition arrangements, given that co-operation is a key part of the agricultural sector. Many farmers and farm organisations are, by their nature, co-operative: whether it is NFU Mutual, equipment changes or buying feed or pesticides, they tend to act in a co-operative organisation. I am raising the issue under schedule 2 to put on the record that there is still some unease. The Minister has recognised that, given the amendments that he tabled to clause 22. He has explained why he changed the wording, and I am very happy with that.

The issue is about the impact assessment on the Co-operative movement, given that the producer organisations, the associations of producer organisations and the inter-branch organisations—all lovingly acronymed —are by nature not just competitive organisations. They are also co-operative organisations. The Co-operative movement has felt that there has been increasing uncertainty and regulatory risk. Having agreed to the amendments that the Minister brought forward to clause 22, I am asking him also to say something in our discussion about schedule 2. That clearly relates to clause 23, given that one follows from the other.

Established co-operatives fear that they might find themselves outside the new settlement. They are likely to manage most of the uncertainty well, but they want to know that the Government have heard what they have been saying. In a sense, they want the Government to mount a robust defence of where co-operation comes within agriculture.

The biggest risk is where established co-operatives feel uncertainty about how the Competition and Markets Authority might interpret the joint selling arrangements. That is an important issue for those who want to protect co-operatives, one of whom is myself. At the very least, the additional challenge they might be faced with will put a cost obligation on them, increasing the transactional costs of collaboration. They want reassurance from the Minister about how they should handle the situation.

Will co-operatives be subject to those types of challenges, if the legislation is passed as it is currently drafted? Will it at least make farmers less inclined to co-operate, given that the nature of the Bill is to look at different ways in which environmentally-inclined changes could lead to new ways of working? This is a very old way of working, but it may be given an enhanced status if and when the Minister can clarify whether co-operation would be a key element of how the Competition and Markets Authority would see the matter. The co-operatives did look at various amendments. The Government have listened, and the co-operatives are happy with what they have done through amendments 9 and 11 to clause 22. However, they want further reassurance, as the same logic applies to schedule 2.

This is a probing amendment, but it is important because the message the Minister gives will reassure or cause further doubt in the minds of those who wish to look at new forms of business organisations in terms of how they do their agricultural trade. Will the Government at least look again at the issue and ensure that what they have done with clause 22 will apply to schedule 2? If the Minister can assure me that the Government will do that, I will certainly not press the amendment, but we may have to revisit it on Report if the Government have not done what they should to ensure that the CMA can incorporate co-operation as well as pure competition.

Again, that is part of the current common agricultural policy arrangements and its interpretation of economic efficiency within the acquis. We want to know that it will be rolled over into British legislation and particularly how it will be rolled over into schedule 2.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have been in discussion with Co-operatives UK, which raised the issue about eligibility and the fact that the requirements for a corporate body and to have all members from one sector could affect some co-operative working. We listened to that and addressed it.

I do not think that there is a spill-over of that problem—for want of a better term—in schedule 2, because that schedule is essentially all the technical clauses needed to disapply what competition lawyers call “the chapter 1 prohibition”. In essence, schedule 2 determines and sets out in some detail the process by which producer organisations can come together to collaborate and co-operate in a range of areas and co-ordinate their activities in a way that would otherwise be considered a breach of competition law.

In particular, paragraph 9(1A) of schedule 3 to the Competition Act 1998 lists activities such as planning production, optimising production costs, concentrating supply, placing products on the markets and negotiating supply contracts. Schedule 2 gives licence to a recognised producer organisation to do all those things and to disapply those elements of the 1998 Act.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

Would the Minister clarify a concern of mine? He has referred to sub-paragraph (1A), but I refer him to sub-paragraph (1C)(a), which says that condition B is that:

“in the case of a PO, none of the producers concerned are members of any other PO as regards the products covered by the activities”.

If someone had six dairy farms, one of which sold 55% of its produce through Arla, but they wanted to create a more local co-operative and the sixth Arla-related farm wanted to be part of it, would that bring the whole house down or would there be some scope and flexibility, perhaps based on percentages? That absolute restriction may need a bit of refinement.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My understanding is that that is effectively an anti-avoidance provision to stop people from being members of several co-operatives and having a genuinely dominant market position that goes above and beyond what is envisaged by producer organisations. Under the current EU scheme, one producer organisation can have a market share of up to 33%, but if there were overlapping producer organisations, it could create market distortion. My understanding is that the provision seeks to address that.

In conclusion, I am a huge supporter of bio groups, co-operative working and collaborative working. We all know that one of the challenges we face in the agricultural industry, as we think about the future, is that it is sometimes a fragmented sector and sometimes does not have the clout it needs in the market or the ability to do joint collective buying to get those costs down. We want to facilitate collaborative working; this part of the Bill and the particular schedule that the shadow Minister has raised go some way to addressing that.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30 pm, 13th November 2018

The Minister makes an interesting point. I thank the hon. Member for North Dorset for getting my little grey cells working. Let us take Arla, for example—a co-operative that operates across a number of countries and that is not likely to fall foul of the CAP by being seen as a monopoly with more than 33%.

I do not have the current figures for the percentage of the milk supply that Arla processes, but if the Competition and Markets Authority took it as a purely national organisation and it fell foul of that 33%, could this new legislation mean that it ended up having to be broken up? I will need some assurance from the Minister before we go any further, because that is a good example of a co-operative that everyone would support, but which could now be in a disadvantageous situation if we take this as a national definition of its market control. Will the Minister clarify?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There is already national competition law set out in the Competition Act 1998, enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority. In the past, for instance, that famously led to the break-up of Milk Marque, which led to the situation we have today. There have been instances of that in the past under existing national provisions on competition law. I know the hon. Gentleman said he might come back to this on Report; I am happy to give an undertaking to look at this issue further and explain in further detail exactly what each of those clauses delivers. The clause that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset mentioned is an anti-avoidance clause—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It must be something we said—he has just left.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes. My understanding is that we have addressed the issues he has raised about the schedule, which are linked to the concerns that Co-operatives UK raised, through our earlier amendments.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 24