Food Prices and Food Poverty

Part of Opposition Day — [Un-allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:50 pm, 23rd January 2012

As I am sure Opposition Front Benchers are aware, the lead Department on the grocery code adjudicator, both for the Government and for the Opposition, is of course the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but we have been very clear as a Government that we are fully committed to introducing the adjudicator as soon as possible.

Free and fair competition is the key to a healthy market, and it is right that the adjudicator should make sure the market is working in the best long-term interest of consumers. In this Session, we published a draft Bill to allow pre-legislative scrutiny. It was a popular measure, welcomed on both sides of the House, and as the Leader of the House said on 15 December 2011:

“There will be a second Session of this Parliament, and the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill is a strong candidate for consideration as part of it.”—[Hansard, 15 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 937.]

So there is no delay, but it has to be done right.

It is important to bear it in mind that, overall, the Competition Commission found that retailers are providing a good deal for their customers, and they should not be prevented from securing the best deals and passing the benefits on to their customers, but, similarly, we are clear that they should be required to treat their suppliers lawfully and fairly.

During pre-legislative scrutiny, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee suggested that third parties should be allowed to lodge complaints. Our position remains that it is more appropriate for complaints to be lodged directly or indirectly by suppliers, but we are open to considering further arguments on extending the range of those who can trigger an investigation. That is the benefit of pre-legislative scrutiny. We recognise that third parties, including trade associations, have a valuable role to play, so the adjudicator will be fully free to gather evidence from trade associations once an investigation has begun.

The draft Bill provides the adjudicator with the power to name and shame retailers that are in breach of the code, and we believe that, in a highly competitive market, retailers will not risk reputational damage from unacceptable behaviour towards suppliers. If negative publicity proves insufficient, however, the draft Bill contains a reserve power for the adjudicator to impose financial penalties, subject to an order made by the Business Secretary but without the need for primary legislation.

I hope the House agrees, therefore, that these measures represent significantly more progress than was made under the previous Government and should be generally welcomed.