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Clause 14 - Annual report

Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 13th December 2012.

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Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 2:45 pm, 13th December 2012

I beg to move amendment 52, in clause 14, page 5, line 12, at end insert—

‘(d) the resources available to the Adjudicator.

(e) recommendations made to the Office of Fair Trading as set out in section 13.’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 53, in clause 14, page 5, line 19, at end insert—

‘(c) the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee;

(d) the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee;

(e) their respective successor committees from time to time; and

(f) the Devolved Administrations’.

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

The Committee will be pleased to hear that I do know what these amendments are about. Perhaps the power of my persuasive argument will mean that the hon. Member for City of Chester will feel able to support them.

As clause 14 stands, the report that the adjudicator must prepare at the end of each reporting period must include a summary of disputes, which we would assume would be in the report as a matter of course; the investigations that have been carried out, which again seems fairly obvious; and the cases in which the adjudicator has used enforcement measures, as we discussed when considering clause 6. That seems a reasonable summary of what should be included in the report, and amendment 52 would merely add two very small specifications to that list.

Subsection (2)(d) in amendment 52 would result in the report specifying the resources available to the adjudicator and whether they were adequate for their purposes. That is quite a sensitive issue, because the adjudicator will be paid for by a levy on supermarkets  and large retailers, so keeping under review the resources available to the adjudicator, by including them in the adjudicator’s report, is a sensible approach.

The second point, which would be added by proposed new paragraph (e), would have been to add to the report any

“recommendations made to the Office of Fair Trading as set out in section 13.”

That was consequential to amendment 51 to clause 13, but as the Committee did not agree to that amendment, it is no longer required. However, we would like to press the issue of adding to the report the resources available to the adjudicator.

Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Labour, Corby

I think the public have a healthy scepticism about the role of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations—they come with all sorts of different names, do they not? If the adjudicator is to have the confidence of the public, the public will need to see that the adjudicator is good value for money. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good reason to support his amendment?

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

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention. Every member of the Committee will appreciate that the Opposition look to spend every penny of public money sensibly. The adjudicator will be funded by levies on the large retailers. It will be important that, on a regular basis, the adjudicator says in the report to the OFT and the Secretary of State, “The levies we are getting in from the retailers are enabling us to do x, but in actual fact, we are finding breaches of the code that mean that we would like to do y; also, many third parties are coming forward and telling us about historical breaches that are still happening now, and we would like to investigate those.” The ability to take such issues forward would come down entirely to the resourcing of the adjudicator, and therefore the report should include not only the resources available to them but the resources that they may require.

We do not want to see large amounts of—or indeed any—public money being given to the adjudicator because they do not have the resources they need. The adjudicator’s office is a body that should be funded by the industry. My hon. Friend makes a valuable intervention, and I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that the adjudicator will be properly resourced and that the annual report will include the issue of resourcing.

Amendment 53 would add conditions relating to publishing the report. The clause already says:

“The report must set out any recommendations that the Adjudicator has made to the Office of Fair Trading for changes to the Groceries Code.”

That report will be published and sent to the Secretary of State and the Office of Fair Trading, but we should also ensure that it is available to the relevant Select Committees. We discussed at great length in our debates on clause 1 the involvement of Select Committees in pre-appointment hearings, and it is important for the annual report to given to Parliament. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will have a key input into the adjudication process and the work of not just the adjudicator but the industry as a whole. The BIS Committee may want to look at a business aspect of the matter, or there may be an ongoing issue to do with food production, rural affairs or the environment.  Those Committees may want to look at the annual report from time to time, as may the devolved Administrations.

I am sure that the Minister is going to pop up and say that as a matter of course, any Select Committee can call in a report, hold an inquiry and debate it, and that it will be sent to the devolved Administrations as a matter of course as well. However, it is important to say in the Bill that the process will be transparent and inclusive, and that Select Committees are a valuable resource for the House and will be sent a copy of the report as a matter of course. The Committees can then decide whether they wish to act on the report itself, or whether they wish to set up an inquiry to examine anything that comes from it. These are two straightforward, sensible and—I think this was the terminology from Tuesday—beautiful amendments. I hope that the Committee will support them.

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

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his amendments, although I am not sure whether they could be considered beautiful. Perhaps in a charitable mood I could agree that that might be the case, but I do not think that is a good enough reason to include them in the Bill. Beautiful or otherwise, they are unnecessary, and I hope to convince him and the Committee why.

The annual report will clearly be an important tool in the adjudicator’s armoury. I am sure that it will be looked at by a range of stakeholders, from campaign groups to retailers, suppliers, members of the public and Members of Parliament. We want it to set out a factual description of the adjudicator’s activities, which will ensure transparency as to what the adjudicator is doing. It will also have to set out the actions that the adjudicator has undertaken in the course of their duties during the preceding year. It is quite right that it will be scrutinised thoroughly, which is to be expected.

I turn to amendment 52, and particularly the part about the resources available to the adjudicator. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about paragraph (e) of no longer making much sense, given that the previous amendment was not accepted. However, information on those resources will already be available, and that is already set out in various places. Clause 14(4) states that the recommendations made by the adjudicator must be set out. If Members turn to page 14 of the Bill, they will see that paragraph 15 of schedule 1 states that the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a copy of the adjudicator’s statement of accounts, which must have been certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Clearly, that statement will have to contain details of the resources available to the adjudicator. Clause 19(8), on levy funding, states:

“The Adjudicator must publish detail of levies and an explanation of how the amounts have been decided”.

All that information will make clear what the resources of the adjudicator are.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that such information needs to be in the public domain, which is why that is stated in the Bill. It will be possible for people to make judgments about value for money, and details of the resources available to the adjudicator to enable it to carry out its functions will be transparent for everybody involved. For that reason, amendment 52 would not add substantively to what is already in the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman set out the case for amendment 53, which would require the annual report to be sent to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. He anticipated my response—I do not believe it is necessary to set that out in the Bill. The annual report will be laid before Parliament in accordance with clause 14(6), which means that it will also be available publicly online for Select Committees to consider. They will be able to conduct such inquiries or scrutiny as they see fit. The amendment is definitely well meant, but it is not essential.

I expect all such information to be contained on the website, to which reference has been made. It is worth bringing to the Committee’s attention that the name www.off-trolley.co.uk does not seem to have been taken. “Unknown host” is the message that comes up, so who knows what suggestions might arise from the creative talents of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd?

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 3:00 pm, 13th December 2012

Just for the sake of clarity, will the Minister repeat that suggested name, as I believe that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd might have been the out of the room while that particular bombshell was being dropped?

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 very happy to oblige. I am sure that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, who has been doing his job assiduously in the Committee, will be keen to know that I have just checked, and www.off-trolley.co.uk does not yet appear to have been nabbed. It currently says “unknown host”, so I do not know whether there will suddenly be a flurry of applications to the various authorities that give out domain names before we leave Committee this afternoon. Who knows? That might well be an option for the adjudicator to pursue. However, Select Committees will already be able to get the information from whatever website it is published on, whatever the URL.

The devolved Administrations are also referred to in amendment 53. As we have discussed previously, we want the adjudicator to work closely with devolved Administrations, but because competition law is reserved and they will not have direct authority over the adjudicator, putting that in the Bill would run the risk of a degree of confusion and blurring the lines of authority on the role of the adjudicator. Obviously the devolved Administrations will have access to the information, as is appropriate. I hope I have convinced the hon. Member for Edinburgh South that the provision of information will be adequate and that the amendments are unnecessary.

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

I feel reassured. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore is not in the Committee this afternoon—he is here in name, but not in presence. We were thinking that he would quickly take part in the debate in the House and then rejoin us, but matters are obviously taking slightly longer than we had thought. I appreciate what the Minister says about the details of the resourcing of the adjudicator being included in other parts of the Bill, so I shall not press amendment 52.

I am unclear why the Government are so reluctant include in Bills the need for scrutiny by Select Committees, as that would be sensible action to take. My hon. Friend  the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) might be surprised to know that the Minister is so reluctant to include their Select Committees in the Bill. However, given that we have discussed the matter and probed the Minister into telling us why she hates Select Committees so much, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.