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Clause 11 - Advice

Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 13th December 2012.

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Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 12:15 pm, 13th December 2012

I beg to move amendment 23, in clause 11, page 4, line 14, after ‘to’, insert ‘the public,’.

We are now moving at breakneck speed through the Bill. The amendment is again straightforward, but it goes to the heart of what the adjudicator is meant to be doing at this point. The clause gives the adjudicator the ability to give advice on the code to suppliers and large retailers. It is right for that to be in the Bill because it allows a two-way dialogue on issues that might arise. If the adjudicator can take on the role of allowing advice to be sought from large retailers and suppliers, that might negate any need for investigations or any confusion with investigations. Under clause 10, there is an ability for suppliers to have costs awarded against them if they bring vexatious claims, some of which claims—if there are any—could be negated by simple advice from the adjudicator’s office to the large retailers and suppliers.

The Opposition also believe that insertion of “the public” into the clause could be useful. As discussed in Committee, the adjudicator and the code are in place to regulate the relationship between the large retailer and the direct primary producer; that relationship, however, has a knock-on effect for consumers. If the relationship breaks down, or there is a power play by the large retailer on the supplier, then ultimately the consumer could lose out, whether on prices, future innovation or even the products available. While the adjudicator referees the code that deals with the relationship, it is important to remember that that relationship should allow for the public to gain some information on the code.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I understand that the hon. Gentleman’s motivation is honourable, but how does he think that the public might have responded during the recent dairy crisis? It was high in the headlines and the adjudicator might have received a number of letters during such a period, so what effect would it have had on his ability to deal with the core problems?

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

That is a good intervention. The adjudicator might have been swamped during that particular issue, which could have prevented day-to-day issues being dealt with. If during such an incident the adjudicator is swamped by the public’s concerns, whether directly or through Members of Parliament—we were all lobbying pretty heavily on that issue—the adjudicator would be given the opportunity to say, “There is a problem here. Let’s portray what that problem is.” Indeed, giving information to the public might have helped in the campaign to have that issue resolved.

I appreciate that there is a potential for the adjudicator’s office to be swamped in such instances, but the other side of the coin is that the adjudicator being swamped by the public may in fact benefit any investigation that might need to take place.

In fact, some third parties are allowed to make representations to the adjudicators, and some of that information may come directly from the public. It is important that we allow the public to be involved in this particular process. We are not saying that the public should have the ability to lobby the adjudicator: clause 11 seeks to permit the adjudicator to give advice to suppliers or large retailers on matters relating to the code, and we are merely suggesting that he may give such advice to the public as well. That advice could take the form of a public advice campaign or a public awareness campaign on certain issues.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice Conservative, Camborne and Redruth 12:30 pm, 13th December 2012

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s intention of trying to get the public engaged, but, given that the adjudicator’s role is primarily to enforce the groceries code, can he explain where he thinks the public can help in terms of determining whether or not the code has been broken?

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

I am not sure that our amendment would involve the public in the code as such; it merely proposes that the adjudicator may give advice to the public. Clause 11, as it currently stands—and we are back to the “may” or “must” argument that we had before—says:

“The Adjudicator may give advice on any matter relating to the Groceries Code to suppliers or large retailers.”

Our amendment would mean that the adjudicator could give advice to the public on the workings of the code. That, in our opinion, would be beneficial. If we think back to question of the hon. Member for Sherwood about the dairy issue that arose earlier this year, under this amendment the public might have been able to get some information from the adjudicator directly about that particular issue.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

That particular issue highlights the problem: the public will have been aware that the price that was being paid to farmers was too low, but of course there was no actual breach of the groceries code, because that was an agreement that had been made between the relevant parties. The public might confuse what is a negotiated price with what is a breach of the code.

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

That is exactly why the public should be able to seek advice on such issues: if the adjudicator, when contacted, is able to say to the public, “There has not been a breach of the code in terms of the issues that  I deal with; here, therefore, are the other avenues that you might want to go down in order to seek remedy,” that sort of confusion would not arise. Perhaps when we reach clause 13, and, subsequently, the new clauses, we will be able to examine some of the issues of what is included in the code, whether the code is kept live and whether intermediaries are able to be included.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Labour, Corby

This particular issue relates to the point made in a previous sitting by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central about the power of the supermarkets. Supermarkets will be very well able to communicate their position to the public—indeed, they do so very effectively—not just on pricing and offers but on their relations with the adjudicator. We ought to recognise that the adjudicator will want to communicate with the public, as well, and to have that relationship with the public, even though, as the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth rightly says, that is not the adjudicator’s specific role. We should recognise the power of the supermarkets.

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

That is a useful intervention, and fits comfortably with the interventions from other hon. Members about the amendment. We do not want the adjudicator to turn into a one-stop shop for public complaints about supermarkets; we are merely saying that, if there is advice to be given, on a two-way advice street, the ability for the adjudicator to give that advice to the public—and vice versa—should be on the face of the Bill. Can I therefore ask the Minister whether there will be some kind of public website that the adjudicator’s office will run and maintain to give information about what the adjudicator is currently looking at?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend the Member for Corby raised a very valid point. The supermarkets have got their fingers on the parliamentary pulse. They employ professional PR people—ComRes is an example—who send questionnaires out to us MPs on a monthly basis, asking, “What do you think about the supermarkets?” There is an imbalance: the intelligence that supermarkets are getting about Parliament—about MPs and what we feel—is far greater than the intelligence that small suppliers and farmers get. Anything that can be done to redress that imbalance will be well received by farmers and suppliers.

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

That is a valuable point. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to suggest that we use off-trolley.com as the website. He has disappointed me. Perhaps I have not given him the credit that he deserves for that intervention. It is about that power relationship. Having the public involved in the process makes it more transparent, more accountable and allows that information flow to be far smoother. It may ensure that any issues that arise are dealt with properly and the related information is properly constituted. Some kind of public-facing adjudication website or information flow would be the way to do it. It is a straightforward amendment just to give the public a stakeholder engagement in this process.

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 very much recognise the spirit of the amendment tabled by the hon. Members for Ogmore and for Edinburgh South. The provision of advice is an important function of the adjudicator which is why  clause 11 is in the Bill. Prevention is always better than cure so it is important that the adjudicator can pre-empt some of the problems that might occur and give advice at an early stage. It was suggested earlier in the debate that if claims were brought against suppliers that were deemed to be vexatious, the claimants could be ordered to pay costs. If anyone came to the adjudicator for advice on a potential claim, they would want to discuss that. We all want to avoid vexatious claims. I think there is already enough in the Bill to enable the adjudicator to do that.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh South said that if people have a question and want to know the answer to something, we want the adjudicator to be able to tell them. Of course they will be able to do that. They will be able to do it in a range of different ways. Paragraph 16 of schedule 1 states:

“The Adjudicator may do anything that is calculated to facilitate the carrying out of the Adjudicator’s functions or is conducive or incidental to the carrying out of those functions.”

That would cover the ability to answer questions from members of the public.

It is also important to make this distinction: while educating the public at large can be valuable, they are not the primary audience for the adjudicator. The focus needs to be on business-to-business relationships between suppliers and the large retailers. While I agree with a lot of what has been said about making sure that the public can be informed and can understand the role of the adjudicator—let us not forget that the public have been very involved in lobbying Members of Parliament about this—it is not the primary focus.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood mentioned the pitfalls if it is not sufficiently clear that the key role for the adjudicator relates to business-to-business relationships. He gave the example of the dairy crisis and the deluge of requests that might swamp the adjudicator. In those circumstances we would want the adjudicator to be able to prioritise their resources properly. Those resources are, after all, constrained. There is not a bottomless pit of money. The adjudicator needs to focus on the key areas.

While I agree that being able to answer questions and being able to advise someone who is thinking of making a claim about whether it is worth pursuing or whether it might be deemed to be vexatious is perfectly in order, I was a little bit more worried when the hon. Gentleman talked about launching public awareness campaigns. With a constrained budget that might not be the best use of the adjudicator’s money. I want to see the adjudicator focusing heavily on enforcing the code, so we need to be a little careful about the amendment.

It is also worth reminding the Committee that the adjudicator will be a public officer. They will therefore generally be required to act reasonably if a member of the public requests advice. However, they will obviously operate within constrained resources, and given that the public are not the key audience, it is not necessary to include the words in the amendment. None the less, I give an assurance that paragraph 16 of schedule 1, as well as the general fact that the adjudicator will be a public officer and will have to act reasonably, mean that they will certainly not be prevented from answering questions from members of the public. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance and that he will withdraw the amendment.

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

I appreciate what the Minister says about the adjudicator looking at a purely business-to-business transaction, but it does have a consumer impact, and it is not technically just a purely business-to-business transaction in the sense that there is no consumer involvement whatever. That was the main reason for the amendment.

On public awareness, I did not envisage television adverts like those we used to have in the 1960s and 1970s or that the adjudicator would be dealing with Government public awareness campaigns. I was merely responding to the dairy example raised by the hon. Member for Sherwood. That would have nothing to do with the adjudicator and the code because there was no breach, but if there was that level of public awareness, with people swamping the adjudicator, the adjudicator would be able to advise people that no code had been breached and would not, therefore, have to deal with the issue.

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

It might be helpful to mention a point I forgot to touch on in my remarks. There will be a website, and the public will be able to see various pieces of information, such as investigation reports, the guidance that has been put together and the annual report. That will all be in one place on the website, and I think that that will help to address some of the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised.

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

I was just about to push the issue to a vote, but we now have an assurance that there is a website. May I suggest that the Minister considers off-trolley.com? Given that I had also not realised the direct connection with paragraph 16, which gives the adjudicator the power to take up some of these issues, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.