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EU Referendum: "pettifogging regulation"

2016-05-21 05:40:28

Returning to Jeremy Paxman's documentary on the EU from Thursday, one needs to remember not who he is, but what he is. Strip away the subject material and what he does for a living is broadcast. He's a professional broadcaster.

Now, if nothing else, broadcasting is an industry driven by standards - thousands of them. If all the standards for the pieces of kit used by the BBC (some it pictured above) were printed out, you'd have a stack of documents feet high. Yet Jeremy Paxman looks at a $25bn industry - the banana industry - which has one 13-page international standard, and calls it "pettifogging regulation"?

This is actually the measure not of the subject, but of the myopia of the man. In his little bubble, he probably doesn't even register all the kit around him in his workplace. This is "techie" stuff so far below his extremely generous pay grade that it will be invisible to him. That it might be standards-driven wouldn't even occur to someone who thinks that marketing standards for fruit and vegetables are something to be dismissed.

Yet, for those who can remember, there was a world without such standards – the one I recall as a lad when the first-born was press-ganged into going with mum on the weekly shop to help carry the bags. There were no supermarkets then, so buying the week's supplies took most of Saturday morning queuing at the butchers, the baker, Sainsbury's (with a queue at each counter) and the greengrocer. I hated it.

But I still remember the greengrocer. Mum used to complain bitterly about the potatoes. Bought loose, by the time you'd scrubbed the mud off them, they were several ounces lighter. Machine damage was common, and you had to trim them generously to remove the spoiled areas. And then it was not at all uncommon to find one or more rotted potatoes.

At that time there were no consumer standards – only wholesale marketing rules, which came from the Agricultural Produce (Grading) (Potatoes) Regulations 1929. Even then, they wouldn't have been much use as the standard gave a "dirt and rot" tolerance of five percent. And farmers certainly made the most of it. At least five percent of the money you spent on that particular foodstuff went in the bin, and that was before peeling.

Latterly, we got the Agriculture and Horticulture Act 1964 which gave the Ministers powers to designate and define grades of quality in relation to any description of fresh horticultural produce.

These powers, though, were not to help the hard-pressed shopper. There was clearly a demand for them to apply to the retail product, as emerged from an exchange in the House of Lords in February 1967. Then, Labour peer Baroness Burton of Coventry asked whether the benefit of these grading provisions would "apply only to growers and wholesalers, or whether such grading will be available for shoppers to make selection in the shops".

For the Government, the Baroness Phillips, in response, confirmed that this was basically not consumer legislation. Its purpose was "to enable our growers to compete with imported produce" – an important facet of such standards.

This again is something the likes of Paxman and his fellow travellers would never understand. Bluntly, a lot of British farm produce was very poor quality. Having relied on scarcity and rationing – which had only recently been removed – farmers could unload any rubbish on the consumer, and often did.

As a result, the better quality imports which were then becoming available – marketed in accordance with rigid grading systems on the Continent - were taking market share. Imported goods were establishing a reputation for better quality, so much so that some UK enterprises conformed to their rules, calling their produce "export standard".

Interestingly, the disparity of standards was well known. In a debate in June 1962 on the EEC, initiated by Harold Wilson, Labour Member for East Ham, Albert Oram, observed that if we joined the Common Market, "our horticultural industry will probably suffer, but the consumer of those commodities will be better off".

"Imports", he said, "will come in from the Continent duty-free. Furthermore, if the horticultural industry has to pull up its socks and put its house in order in such matters as grading and packaging in order to compete with goods from the Continent the consumer will benefit still further".

Then, fast forwarding to February 1967, and back to Baroness Phillips, she gave a clue as to where things were heading. "I think that my noble friend may be heartened to know", she told Baroness Burton, "that the Government are watching the Common Market countries who are extending their regulations to the retail market to see how it works out". Thus, said Phillips, if at the end of the year if she cares to put down another question, "I may be able to give a more favourable reply".

In October 1967, Baroness Burton was back on the case complaining of the lack of a grading scheme, in a long and interesting debate.

Within the debate, Burton referred to recent standards introduced by the EEC and indeed in the previous year we had seen such delights as Regulation No 41/66/EEC of the Council of 29 March 1966 "laying down common quality standards for cabbages, Brussels sprouts and ribbed celery". How appropriate that one of the very first standards should cover Brussels sprouts.

But, as early as 1962, we'd had Regulation 58 "laying down common quality standards for certain products listed in Annex I B to Regulation No 23 on the progressive establishment of a common organisation of the market in fruit and vegetables". This covered spinach, witloof chicory, peas, beans, carrots, artichokes, table grapes, cherries and strawberries.

Nevertheless, the Government remained opposed to retail grading schemes – mainly on the grounds of cost – but offered Burton "one ray of hope" that Her Majesty's Government were keeping a close watch on the EEC schemes.

In 1969, however, questions were still being asked, this time from Alasdair Mackenzie, MP for Ross and Cromarty, and the Government was still refusing to implement a retail grading scheme.

Three years later all this changed, with the European Communities Bill, debated in the House of Commons on 15 February 1972. With UK entry was to come the Community fruit and vegetable grading scheme. This was finally introduced via the Grading of Horticultural Produce (Amendment) Regulations 1973, subsequently amended by the 1983 Regulations.

But, as can be inferred from this debate in 1981, the writing had been on the wall since the mid-sixties. The moment the EEC countries started grading, and thereby driving up standards, the UK growers were going to have to conform. And there was no question that, from the competition on quality and price, the consumer gained. So, eventually, did the growers, when they were finally able to meet quality standards.

Bringing this right up to date, this is what the Single Market is all about – a Common Regulatory Area, where all commercial enterprises adopt the same standards. And while, we didn't need to sign up to the federalist, supranational agenda in order get a Europe-wide system of grading apples, potatoes, cucumbers (and Brussels sprouts), leaving the political construct of the EU does not necessitate abandoning such a system.

In fact, the idea that, on leaving the EU, we would revert, say, to the original grading system is absurd. Equally absurd would be adopting two-tier regulation with a lighter touch for our domestic market. As we were seeing in the 60s and 70s, all that would happen is that our competitors' higher standards would win them market share. In order to compete, our producers would be forced to accept the higher standard "voluntarily". There are no savings to be made from that "bonfire of regulations".

However, things have changed. The fruit and vegetable standards have now migrated upwards. They no longer originate from Brussels but from Geneva (UNECE) and Codex (Rome). And, as globalisation increasingly takes effect, the whole Single Market will also migrate – to global level. Free from the grip of the EU, we will be able to follow.

Transition is not going to be immediate – it cannot be. But this is the direction of travel. For the time being, we can tolerate the sub-optimal EEA membership until we have built the global market. What we can't do yet is walk away from the European Single Market, not until arrangements are in place.

And, come what may, we're not going to see the end of that "pettifogging regulation". But then, Mr Paxman's broadcasting workplace wouldn't work quite so well if we did. How then could he make vacuous programmes about cucumber regulations?