Food Prices and Food Poverty

Part of Opposition Day — [Un-allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Pat Glass Pat Glass Labour, North West Durham 5:30 pm, 23rd January 2012

It is a pleasure to follow Miss McIntosh, who, like me, represents a large rural constituency where farming is an important industry. I visit farms and talk to farmers regularly, and the one question they ask me to raise in Parliament is, “When are we going to get the supermarkets ombudsman?” I was not here in the previous Parliament. I cannot answer questions about why successive Governments have not introduced a supermarkets ombudsman. However, Members who were here tell me that the issue of a groceries code adjudicator has a long and not very productive history.

Members have championed the cause in opposition, but have proven remarkably slow to put anything into action when in government. In opposition, the Tories announced that they would create the new body through a levy on retailers. Two years ago this month, in January 2010, the then shadow Environment Secretary, Nick Herbert, said that

“further consultation is not the decisive action that consumers or the industry need…Conservatives are clear: we would establish a supermarket ombudsman to enforce the grocery supply code as a dedicated unit in the Office of Fair Trading to ensure a fair deal for producers and safeguard the consumer interest.”

However, we are two years into this Government, and it appears that they are not quite so decisive now. Tim Farron, who was then the Liberal Democrat environment, food and rural affairs spokesman, also told us in January 2010:

“For years, Labour and the Tories have twiddled their thumbs while huge supermarkets have pushed thousands of farmers to the brink. Their response has been totally inadequate”.

However, the Lib Dems are part of this Government, yet we are seeing no sign of decisive action.

Where we have seen consistent, strong and decisive action is from the big four supermarkets. They have always offered strong and sustained resistance to the establishment of a supermarket ombudsman. Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have fought a long, consistent and, it now appears, successful campaign of opposition and delay. However, in the meantime, the farming industry and the consumer continue to wait. Tom MacMillan of the Food Ethics Council tells us:

“The government must now ensure that it listens to small producers as well as big business. A strong supermarket ombudsman, invested with real power, would have the authority to ensure fair prices from the farm gate to the checkout”— the very point that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton made. He continues:

“It would protect the livelihoods of farmers across the UK and give consumers better access to fresh, healthy food.”

The National Farmers Union tells us that dairy producers have been particularly squeezed, with dairy farmers going out of business every day. That is exactly what I am seeing in my constituency, where the number of dairy farmers has been reduced significantly, as they either move into other forms of farming or, more often, leave the industry altogether. War on Want believes that a supermarket ombudsman would support farmers here at home and help poorly paid workers in the developing world. Only the British Retail Consortium, speaking for the supermarkets, believes that a supermarkets ombudsman is a costly and unnecessary new bureaucracy that would not benefit suppliers or consumers. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Oh sorry, only the British Retail Consortium plus one or two Government Members.

The farmers in my constituency, and in many others across the country, are looking for decisive action from the Government on this matter. How many more of them need to go out of business before the Government get around to taking action? Farmers and consumers need a groceries code adjudicator with real powers who can impose real fines of a magnitude that will change the behaviour of food retailers, and not just be seen as an occupational hazard and a risk worth taking. That is the way to bring in fairness across the food chain. It really does not matter whether we call the body a groceries code adjudicator, a supermarkets ombudsman or Oftrolley; what matters is that we get such a body now.