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Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee on 13th December 2012.

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[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 2:00 pm, 13th December 2012

I beg to move amendment 49, in clause 12, page 4, line 37, at end insert

‘including appropriate Ministers from the Devolved Administrations.’.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 54, in clause 15, page 6, line 14, at end insert—

‘(h) the relevant Ministers of the Devolved Administrations.’.

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

I thought that we were going to debate this clause between just the two of us, Sir Roger. What a good debate that would have been. Welcome back everyone after a short break.

Amendments 49 and 54, it is no surprise to hear, are straightforward. The Minister’s generosity will certainly be tested with them. Amendment 49 is to clause 12. Where the amendment would be made, it currently reads:

“Before publishing guidance under this section the Adjudicator must consult any persons he or she thinks appropriate.”

We understand that that is a fairly wide provision, and it would be useful if it specifically said that the consultation should include the appropriate Ministers from the devolved Administrations. I am not the biggest proponent in this place of the Scottish National party, as you will understand, Sir Roger, but it is important that, given this is a UK-wide Bill, the devolved Administrations of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have the ability to comment on the guidance or to try to influence the adjudicator in the consultation on that guidance, purely because they may have instances that are geographically significant or geographically important to them.

Amendment 54, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, would include the relevant Ministers in the devolved Administrations in the list of people who would be consulted in the review. On the review, clause 15 currently states:

“In carrying out a review, the Secretary of State must consult—

(a) the Adjudicator;

(b) the Competition Commission;

(c) the Office of Fair Trading;

(d) the retailers mentioned in Article 4(1)(a) and (b) of the Groceries Supply Order;”— that is the top 10 largest retailers—

“(e) one or more persons appearing to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of suppliers;”

“(f) one or more persons appearing to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of consumers”— which both seem sensible—and

“(g) any other person the Secretary of State thinks appropriate.”

Clause 15(7)(g) is wide enough to cover the devolved Administrations, but it is important that the relevant Ministers in the devolved Administrations are mentioned specifically in the report, so they can have an input into the review process and the published guidance.

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 sure it would have been a delightful debate, had it just been the hon. Gentleman and yourself, Sir Roger, but I am none the less pleased that we have a much fuller complement this afternoon, although it is not an entirely full complement.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his amendments. As the Committee will be aware, both he and I have a particular interest in matters north of the border, because we are both MPs for Scottish constituencies. I think we would all agree that it is important that the devolved Administrations are adequately consulted where that is appropriate.

I want to put it on record that we are very grateful for the support that we have had in dealings with the devolved Administrations as we have come forward with the Bill. We have been looking at this issue for some time, because, as hon. Members will be aware, it was a draft Bill in the first Session of this Parliament. Officials have been in regular contact—roughly monthly—with officials from the devolved Administrations. We gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee on the issue. The Scottish Government confirmed earlier this year that no legislative consent motion is needed. We have certainly involved them at the stages of the Bill’s development. At ministerial level, we have had a formal write round on more than one occasion to ensure that they are well abreast of what we are doing.

The amendments raise an important point, but there is a difference between whether it is important to consult and whether it should be a statutory duty, with devolved Administrations named on the face of the Bill. I would reject that part of the approach because the groceries code is a non-devolved issue, as it is about competition law, and that matter is reserved. Therefore, the adjudicator has no formal responsibilities to the devolved Administrations. In that case, a statutory duty to report to such bodies would not be appropriate and could muddy the waters around the adjudicator’s role. It could suggest, for example, that the devolved Administrations had some kind of oversight role for the adjudicator, when they do not have powers to control either the code or the adjudicator.

I hope that the Committee is reassured and satisfied that the adjudicator will work closely with the devolved Administrations where appropriate, considering their interests carefully. The Government’s approach up to this point helps set the tone for that engagement, which we would expect the adjudicator to continue. As the hon. Gentleman said, the drafting as it stands allows both the Secretary of State and the adjudicator to consult any other person thought appropriate. It would be natural that that would include the devolved Administrations, so that their views could be considered under the provision. Specific requirements to consult them are unnecessary, and because of the issues on devolution and reserved matters that I have mentioned, it would not be appropriate to include such requirements in the Bill, in primary legislation. I hope the amendment was offered in a probing spirit, aimed to make sure that  the devolved Administrations are to be involved, as they have been up to this point, without the formality of a statutory duty.

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

These were indeed probing amendments, for the simple reason that the Scottish Government in particular do not have a track record at the moment of consulting other organisations, even when they say they have, whether that be this place, the European Union, or the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee. I thought it was important to make sure that the devolved Administrations had been involved in the process, and that that was on the record. I take reassurance from the fact that, as I said, the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to consult the devolved Administrations, both on the guidance and on the review process. I hope that the message to the Secretary of State from this short debate is that we hope the devolved Administrations are involved. Given the Minister’s reassurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 10, in clause 12, page 4, line 39, leave out ‘and (c)’ and insert ‘, (c) and (d)’.—(Jo Swinson.)

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

I beg to move amendment 50, in clause 12, page 4, line 39, leave out ‘6’ and insert ‘3’.

This is a straightforward amendment. We had a long debate on Second Reading about the haste with which we wish to see the legislation getting Royal Assent and appearing on the statute book. I had a wholesome discussion with the hon. Member for St Ives—prior to my complimenting him on his lifetime’s work of getting the Bill this far—on whether it was the previous Government or this Government who were responsible for that delay. I am glad that we are now in a position to be able to take the Bill forward after it has come from the other place.

The amendment’s purpose is to reduce the amount of time that it will take the adjudicator to bring forward the guidance from six to three months. I appreciate that in today’s earlier debate, the Minister suggested that the guidance for fines was at six months because there may be a general election—on this side of the House, we hope that that happens sooner rather than later, if the coalition decides that its marriage of convenience needs to collapse. If the time for getting the guidance together was changed to three months, a greater focus would be given to the adjudicator and all the bodies that would be involved in bringing the guidance together, so that we could try to get the adjudicator up and running as quickly as possible. Therefore, the purpose of this probing amendment is to get reassurance that the work will be done quickly.

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 think the intention of all parties is to make sure that the adjudicator is up and running and able to discharge their duties without delay. We all want to see that. The hon. Gentleman said that we want to see this matter proceed with haste. That is fair. However, it is important that we do not do so hastily, if I can make that distinction. That is why I reject his amendment to shorten the period in which the adjudicator has to publish their guidance from six months to three months. Three months is an overly ambitious period if the adjudicator is to be thorough in their consultation on what should go into the guidance. The guidance will be an important piece of information for all the parties  involved, whether they are retailers, suppliers or even, as mentioned in previous discussions, interested members of the public. We need to make sure that it is absolutely right if it is to be the cornerstone of subsequent investigations.

Public consultations typically last between 10 and 12 weeks, although the Government’s guidance shows that if there has already been extensive consultation or there are extenuating circumstances, consultations can have a shorter time scale than that. A wide range of issues will be considered in the guidance that the adjudicator publishes, therefore we want it to have the full amount of time for public consultation. If a consultation lasted for 10 to 12 weeks, the amendment’s three-month time scale would be overly restrictive. Time is needed to draw up the consultation guidance, to review what has been sent in and to create the finalised guidance for publication at the end of the consultation. A six-month time scale allows some weeks before the consultation to draw up the guidance. It allows time for a thorough consultation, and to bring forward the finalised guidance. A three-month time scale would not allow that.

It would be a shame if the adjudicator’s guidance was unworkable or ineffective as a result of undue hastiness. I therefore encourage the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment. Let us make sure that this proceeds with haste, but not in a hasty manner.

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

I appreciate the Minister’s comments. We want haste, but we do not want to be hasty. That is good terminology. I want to draw a parallel with the shares for rights proposal in clause 23 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which will be before the House for Third Reading and Report stage on Monday. It was announced by the Chancellor at the Conservative party conference, there were six weeks of consultation and a major piece of legislation appeared not long afterwards. The Minister says she wants this to come forward in a proper fashion to get it right. The unworkable nature of the shares for rights clause in that Bill shows that the Minister is right. We do not want to just pick an idea off the shelf, hastily put it together and make something, in her words, unworkable.

I will not press the amendment. I am reassured that six months is about right. I do not think the Minister said that six months would be the maximum, so there would be nothing to stop the adjudicator from publishing the guidance sooner, if that is the case.

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The adjudicator must publish guidance within six months. If the adjudicator felt that proper consultation had happened, there would be nothing to stop their publishing earlier. The clause gives the adjudicator the opportunity to use that six months if it is needed.

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

I am delighted for that clarification and reassurance. I hope that the adjudicator, the Secretary of State, the Minister and everyone involved in this process will take on board the will of the entire House. We want this to happen as quickly as possible. Perhaps that six month maximum could be reduced if the Government are able to put together in a proper fashion a shorter, more sensible time frame. On that basis, I beg leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.