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Clause 11 - Advice

Part of Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 13th December 2012.

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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 12:30 pm, 13th December 2012

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.