The Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. This is an issue which the Liberal Democrats in general, and Andrew George in particular, have campaigned on for many years. I can remember meeting with farmers shortly after I was first elected back in 2001, and hearing from them the difficulties they faced as suppliers for the biggest supermarkets. A commitment to introduce “a powerful independent regulator of Britain’s food market” featured in our last manifesto (in fact, Labour and the Conservative manifestos both included a similar pledge).
Following the Competition Commission’s report in 2008, which highlighted the danger of supermarkets abusing their power by transferring “excessive risk and unexpected costs” to farmers, growers and suppliers, the last Labour government did introduce a statutory Groceries Code of Practice. However, laws aren’t much use without the police and courts to pull up those that break them, and with no body charged with enforcing the Code there was nothing to stop retailers simply ignoring it if they wanted to.
That is why I am delighted that this Government is introducing the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which was published last Friday. This will create an independent ombudsman to ensure that the Code is respected – and to sanction supermarkets if they break it. Those sanctions include naming and shaming offenders, and if that doesn’t prove effective then ministers can give the Adjudicator the power to levy fines.
The Adjudicator will also be able to hear complaints in complete confidence not only from suppliers but also from third party organisations such as the National Farmers Union or War on Want, for example. This means that suppliers don’t have to fear being singled out by supermarkets for putting their head above the parapet.
Supermarkets contribute a great deal to our economy, and bring huge benefits for customers. However, their sheer size and dominance should not be licence to treat suppliers unreasonably.
* Norman Lamb is MP for North Norfolk and was Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Department of Health until May 2015