14 May 1999

Government denies dithering as dairy industry still waits

By Isabel Davies

UNCERTAINTY continues to plague the dairy industry with the government remaining vague about when it intends to publish the Competition Commission report on milk marketing.

Hopes that the report would be released last week were dashed, and speculation is now mounting that it will be another month before the government is ready to announce its decisions on the future of milk selling arrangements in the UK.

Trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers has denied that the government is dithering, insisting that the report will be published before parliament goes into summer recess.

Answering MPs questions in the Commons, Mr Byers said: "There is no dithering. The report is being considered and we shall publish it as soon as is it practical to do so." He said the delay was necessary because there had been more than 200 responses to the report, all of which needed consideration.

The prospect of further delays met a stoic response from the dairy industry. Milk Marques managing director Paul Beswick said: "There is no alternative to wait for this report. But this will not lessen our resolve nor distract us from running our business.

"We are clear what we are fighting for and we must be able to operate in a competitive market without constant dialogue with the competition authorities."

Jim Begg, director general of the Dairy Industry Federation, said the continuing delay was frustrating. "But it is better that the government publishes the right outcome rather than a quick response," he added.

But Michael Lambert, NFU milk committee chairman, said he hoped the report would be released as soon as possible. The danger with even more delays was that more people would leave Milk Marque. "And looking at this months milk cheque there is a danger people will get out of dairying altogether," he added.

Meanwhile, the House of Commons agriculture select committee has announced that it will be holding its own inquiry into milk marketing. The inquiry, however, is not expected to start until after the Competition Commission report is finally released.