Ending Exploitation in Supermarket Supply Chains

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:46 pm on 18th October 2018.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 12:46 pm, 18th October 2018

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There are any number of cases, for example, of suppliers having food rejected that they have grown to supply supermarkets, because it has not met the standard or because the supermarket has changed the volume that it requires. Much food goes to waste that was grown to meet the supermarket’s original need or requirement. That is another example of the sharp practice that I described.

The truth is that in constituencies across the country, this is the secret exploitation which dare not speak its name. Farmers, growers and food firms—primary and secondary producers—dare not say what I am saying today, because they know that if they did, they would no longer be permitted to sell their goods to the few people available to buy them. That is why the supermarket adjudicator finds it so difficult to get evidence. Even with the confidentiality that is part of her remit, people are still reluctant to tell the truth, because they so fear what the supermarkets might do in retaliation.

It is time for the Government to act. The Agriculture Bill is helpful—I was delighted when I read clause 25, as I said—but we need to think about planning reform. We need to encourage people back into town centres and to our high streets. We need to give the adjudicator additional powers to deal with these exploitative terms of trade. We need to protect the workers in supermarket businesses in the way that was highlighted by the hon. Lady, whom I congratulate on bringing this matter before the House. We also need to recognise that far from extending choice, supermarkets have restricted it. If the only place someone can go to buy their groceries conveniently and affordably is a single store in a single place, how is choice extended and protected?

The Government really need to step up, and no Minister is more capable of doing so than my great friend and Lincolnshire neighbour who will respond to this debate. I ought to pay tribute, too, to Carolyn Harris, who will sum up for the Opposition, because she is also a friend—there is no favouritism here. I know that they will both want to use this opportunity to expose this dreadful secret, as I have called it—this thing that dare not speak its name, this exploitation at the very heart of all that supermarkets do and are.

Before I close—this case is so self-evident that its amplification demands brevity rather than loquacity—I want to say that around the corner there is another spectre: the amalgamation of two supermarkets, with Sainsbury’s and Asda coming together. I spoke a moment ago about the consolidation of the market that resulted from the takeover of Booker by Tesco. This further step would give the combined business 30% of the market. I call upon the Competition and Markets Authority, which did so little about the Booker case, by the way, and which I have written to recently, to recognise in the investigation that has been announced that further consolidation of the groceries market will be injurious to the interests both of consumers and of those who supply them, with all the ill effects for the workers and customers that have been highlighted in this debate.

Let me end—I am coming to my peroration, and I like to give notice of that so that enthusiasm can build—by saying this: two futures are available to us, and we must choose which path we take. We can once again have vivid, vibrant, vital, vivacious high streets, full of eclecticism and particularity and full of choice, or we can have the dull, deadening, draining ubiquity of supermarkets, of out-of-town megastores. That choice is available to us, but we will only choose the first, to the immense benefit of the people, if we are determined to take decisive action to make that come true.

There is a cruel deception—this is an easy thing to misjudge—that the future lies in hands other than ours, that it is pre-determined, that we are somehow simply acting out a script written for us. In fact, the future can be as joyful as we choose it to be, and if it is not fixed, influenced and shaped by the people in this House, we will be failing in our duty to pursue the national interest for the common good.