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Clause 1 - The adjudicator

Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:55 am on 11th December 2012.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I hope that this will be a thoroughly straightforward clause stand part debate. Clause 1 is so brief that I can read it to the Committee:

“A Groceries Code Adjudicator is established (see Schedule 1).”

It is a very straightforward clause that says there will be a groceries code adjudicator. The history of the issue was outlined in more detail on Second Reading. There is clearly a great deal of cross-party agreement that the  adjudicator should be established. Therefore, I hope the Committee can proceed to areas where there may not be as much agreement.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

As the Minister said, there is not much to debate on clause 1. It just gives me the opportunity to pay an early tribute to the Minister in her role on the Bill; she has been both engaging and co-operative so far. Opposition Members look forward to that engagement and co-operation continuing with the Government accepting all of our amendments. If they could accept all our amendments now, perhaps could we go home and have an early Christmas.

I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore who has essentially done all the work on the Bill as shadow Minister for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, the way in which this place works means that the baton has passed to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for us to take it through Committee.

The Bill started as a reasonable one and became a very good one, with the Minister making the right moves regarding the Government amendments, to make it a great one. We now have the opportunity in Committee to make it a fantastic Bill, after our jovial Second Reading debate. We have an opportunity to create a respected, responsible and credible adjudicator that would be good for supply chains, for innovation, for consumers and, most of all, if done properly, for retailers.

There was a great deal of debate in the other place on clause 1, believe it or not, given that it is only one sentence. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) wanted the clause to read, “the supermarket ombudsman” when he introduced his private Member’s Bill a couple of years ago. We will not make that suggestion. I was very surprised that the clock had not even turned to 8.56 am before my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd popped up with his suggestion that the term should be changed to “Off-trolley”. There is nobody more qualified in this place to make that suggestion than the hon. Member for Off-trolley himself.

My noble Friend Lord Knight of Weymouth, when he took the Bill through the other place, said:

“My delight knows no bounds when the Minister in her peroration confirmed that this Bill to establish a quango and a regulator is good for growth.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 May 2012; Vol. 737, c. 758.]

Therefore, I think clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Thank you, Mr Williams —Mr Hywel Williams. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I have only a few brief remarks as this is not a contentious clause. There is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that we are at the point of creating an adjudicator following the Competition Commission’s report in 2008. The suggestion at that stage was that this should be a groceries code ombudsman. I know there has been discussion and heart-searching by many to resolve the issue and find an appropriate term that properly reflects the fact that we want something proactive rather than reactive, which would be the impression if the regulator were referred to as an ombudsman.

A variety of terms has been considered during the process. Of course, only the hon. Member for Clwyd West could come up with “Off-trolley”.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Sorry, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman coming up with such a suggestion says something about him, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South suggested. At the end of the day, “adjudicator” is a compromise. There is not a term that will satisfy all those who want to ensure that this is an effective regulator. Whether “regulator”, “investigator”, “ombudsman” or “adjudicator” is used, we all know that there is significant cross-party consensus to try to take the matter forward, and it is marvellous to be at that point. We want a watchdog with genuine teeth to make sure that it bears down on the problems of unfair trading that the Competition Commission identified in its report.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

The important thing is what this person does and not necessarily what we call the office.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Absolutely, and I was not going to detain the Committee any longer on that point. I am delighted that successive Ministers, in advance of this stage of the Bill, have introduced the opportunity to protect the anonymity of those who bring evidence to the adjudicator and, as we will discuss later, have ensured that investigations can be instigated on the back of market intelligence, providing protections to those who suffer from the kind of unfair dealing that we know has been happening in the sector. I also welcome the Minister’s wisdom in proposing amendments that introduce the availability of fining, which I am sure the adjudicator will take advantage of when the post is taken up. Thank you for allowing me to make a brief contribution, Mr Williams.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I welcome the opportunity to serve under your stewardship again, Mr Williams, on this important Bill. Following the contribution by the hon. Member for St Ives, it would be helpful to pay great tribute to his contribution over many years, to the organisations that he has pulled together to garner support for the provisions, and to other Members as well. I say that now to get it out of the way, so that I do not have to repeat it later in the Committee.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Labour, Corby

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the hon. Member for St Ives, and I wonder whether he read the hon. Gentleman’s comments last September in Farmers Weekly—I am a regular reader of the magazine. The hon. Gentleman remarked that the Government have dragged their feet on this, observing that there is some reluctance to act. He said:

“Every week the government fails to act, farmers are finding themselves in more difficulty.”

In the spirit of unanimity, I fully agree. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, who has done a fantastic job and is very much the embodiment of the fact that this is Labour’s achievement.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank my hon. Friend. There is far too much bonhomie in this Committee already. I concur with the tribute paid to the hon. Member for St Ives and with his urging the Government to get on with it and deliver. It is important, in taking the Bill through the Committee, that all Members reflect the will and the spirit on Second Reading to improve the Bill and turn it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South said, into a very good Bill rather than a half-decent one. We also want to do so in a timely manner and get it on to the statute book as soon as possible.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I just wondered if the hon. Gentleman would take the time to recognise that, while he is waffling on, farmers are still waiting.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Indeed. That is why we have an out-date agreed, in very short order, for the Committee. I hope that then, if the Bill meets with our sovereign’s approval, we will have Royal Assent in very short order as well. However, we do need to go through the democratic process.

I want to ask the Minister about this issue: on Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn reiterated his view that this role was, more correctly, that of an ombudsman. I know that, between then and now, the Government have listened to many comments made on Second Reading, particularly those about putting financial penalties on the face of the Bill; that is hugely welcome. We do not intend to argue the toss over what the name should be, but can the Minister put this issue to bed once and for all, by clarifying whether there is some legal or technical distinction between an ombudsman and, as we have here, an adjudicator, and other terms of reference for this regulatory approach, which has led the Government to the conclusion that an adjudicator is the most appropriate type of regulator? Are there fears about the phraseology to do with ombudsmen that have led her stalwart officials to say, “Don’t go near that, because it will lead us down a different track”? It would be helpful for the sector, from grocery providers through to primary producers, to know exactly what the Government’s reasoning is, and whether, in the Minister’s mind, it limits the scope of the role that we have an adjudicator rather than an ombudsman.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

I am happy to echo the tributes that have already been paid in this short debate to the many individuals who have campaigned, argued and worked tirelessly, for many years, both within this House and outwith it, to make sure that we have a groceries code adjudicator. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives is on the Committee, as I know he has been working on this issue for many years. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn has been mentioned. He of course had a private member’s Bill on the issue, and when I saw the list of Committee members, I thought that it was a shame that he was not it; no doubt he will contribute further on Report. Perhaps he has been detained by an alternative Committee.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Just for the record, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn is a member of the Panel of Chairs, and therefore, although—unlike most other people in the room—desperate to be on the Committee, was barred from being so.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

We started off with such consensus, yet the shadow Minister has just suggested that many Members in the room were not desperate to be on the Committee. I know for a fact that that is not the case for the vast majority—certainly the vast majority of Government Members; he can speak for the Opposition Members if their feelings are any different. It is very helpful for the Committee to know why the hon. Member for Ynys Môn is unfortunately unable to play a role in these proceedings; I am sure that he will do so on Report given his strong contribution on Second Reading.

I am also delighted that some of the newer Members of the House are on the Committee, including the hon. Member for Corby. I have not had many dealings with him before now, although when he was sworn in I was on the Bench and of course nodded and so on. I also welcome the hon. Member for Manchester Central. It is great for us to get to know some of the newer Members of the House. This Committee may not be the truest representation of the degree of consensus that usually exists either in Public Bill Committees or in the House more generally, but I am sure that, none the less, it will be a welcome introduction to the joy of Committee proceedings.

We have begun the debate with a degree of good humour, and that bodes well for our deliberations over the next few hours, later this week and next week. Sadly, we will not be here on Christmas day itself, as the shadow Minister said, as we will have concluded our proceedings in advance of that. Members of the Committee may, however, go away for Christmas with a little present to remind them of the proceedings: my cold.

On the issue raised substantively on the choice of name between ombudsman and adjudicator, we have ombudsmen working on a whole range of issues that look after consumers’ interests. We felt that a different name may be better in this case because although there will be benefit to consumers because market practices created a lack of innovation in the market place, this individual will primarily look after the interests of supplier businesses. To create clarity, we chose a different name, but I reassure the Committee that there is no difference in powers. Adjudicator is a positive name; it does not scream conflict. That is helpful because developing a good relationship with both the supermarkets and suppliers will be crucial for whoever takes up the role. I hope that that answers the Committee’s questions and that they will be pleased for clause 1 to stand part of the Bill

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.