With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
This amendment would extend the fair contractual dealing provisions of Clause 25 to all purchasers of agricultural products through the supply chain.
Amendment 112, in clause 25, page 19, line 22, after second “of” insert “all”.
This amendment would ensure that powers to introduce sector-specific codes are not confined to certain sectors (i.e. not only those where voluntary codes have been unable to significantly improve contractual relationships) but to all sectors.
Amendment 65, in clause 25, page 19, line 23, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations under this section containing provision that extends to Scotland may be made only with the consent of the Scottish Ministers.”
This amendment would require that regulations containing provisions that extend to Scotland may be made only with the consent of Scottish Ministers
Amendment 94, in clause 25, page 19, line 24, leave out “the first”.
This amendment would extend the fair contractual dealing provisions of Clause 25 to all purchasers of agricultural products through the supply chain.
Amendment 66, in clause 25, page 20, line 24, at end insert—
“( ) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must consult persons—
(a) who are representative of—
(i) producers of, or
(ii) first purchasers of, the agricultural products to which the regulations will apply, or
(b) who may otherwise be affected by the regulations.”
This amendment would ensure that before making regulations the Secretary of State be required to consult with representatives of the producers and first purchasers.
Amendment 95, in clause 25, page 20, line 28, leave out “first”.
Amendment 111, in clause 25, page 20, leave out line 30 and insert—
(a) an individual producer within or outside the United Kingdom,
(b) an entity within or outside the United Kingdom which sells agricultural products after they have been aggregated from more than one producer, and
(c) a business within or outside the United Kingdom operating a packhouse;”.
We are making some progress. I blame the hon. Member for North Dorset; he has been holding us up, but now that he has gone we are racing through. These are quite important amendments. I will not labour the point on “must” and “may”—I think the Minister will be keen on that—but I do want to talk particularly about amendments 93 to 95, which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East also has amendment 111 in this group, so we will take a little bit of time going through this, because it is quite important.
Amendments 93 to 95 would remove the requirement restricting new statutory codes to first purchasers at the farm gate, addressing unfair dealings along the whole supply chain—beyond first purchasers—to ensure that that regulation applies to all stages of the supply chain not currently covered by the Groceries Code Adjudicator. I must say that we feel the Bill has been somewhat hurried here. We have made the point of who we did not hear evidence from, one of whom was the Groceries Code Adjudicator, whose powers we feel very strongly have been somewhat hamstrung by the Bill. We either value the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s work or we see it as fairly irrelevant.
This matters because it has been a bone of contention that producers can only ever take action through the Groceries Code Adjudicator relating to certain parts of the food chain, principally improprieties at the retail stage. I understand that the farming organisations have always wanted to extend those powers—powers, not duties—so that they can take action against intermediaries in the food chain. This is important, and we want clarity on this at the very least.
There is this thing about whether they are able to derive evidence of harm. The Government have noted that smaller suppliers—including the majority of farmers— growing our food, both in the UK and overseas, are vulnerable to abusive treatment by their buyers; that is why we have a Groceries Code Adjudicator in the first place. That behaviour can involve: paying invoices late, which is the classic one; changing orders at the last minute; cancelling orders, because we all have examples in our constituencies of particular producers feeling that they have been hung out to dry by the way in which certain buyers are able to manipulate the market; and charging suppliers unexplained fees to keep their food on the shelves.
We know that food supply chains are complex, with behaviour in one part of the chain obviously having an impact in another. Again, we want clarity here, because we think that this part of the Bill could be improved; we are trying to help the Government, not damn them. Limiting the clause’s focus to the relationship between a farmer and their immediate buyer sadly misses out what happens in the intermediary parts of the food chain. It will be interesting to know whether the Government see this as a role for the Groceries Code Adjudicator, or whether they are unhappy about it.
There was widespread support for putting the Groceries Code Adjudicator in place; it was a cross-party arrangement. It took longer than some of us would have liked, given that we started talking about it when I was last a Member, but eventually it came to fruition. The sad thing is that there is still a belief that the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s powers are too limited and that it is too constrained in where it might want to intervene to right wrongs. On these three amendments, we are asking the Government at least to be clear about what they see as the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator in relation to the Bill.
At the crux of this are the circumstances in which the body might need to appropriate precise costs and take a more forensic approach when indirect suppliers request adjudication on a case in which unfair dealing had been perpetrated by other parts of the supply chain. It is about looking at whether we can improve the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and at the very least we want clarity on how the Bill will either do that or not. Again, we may want to revisit this on Report if we do not feel confident that the Government have listened and acted.
Regulations are about how this will be implemented in relation to the supply chain—of course, this is largely about statutory instruments—but the Government need to say something in the Bill about their priorities, and their willingness to listen and act on what many of our producers have identified as a serious issue. In terms of primary legislation, it is important not to leave out what those trading relationships are and could become if there was a more level playing field.
The enforcing body, which presumably is the Groceries Code Adjudicator, needs not only the powers to act but the resources. From talking to producers and from my knowledge of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, I know that cases are often not pursued because there are not the resources to do it. These are terribly complicated issues. Again, it is not something that the law has ever embraced, because it is so complicated. We set up the Groceries Code Adjudicator to get away from that particular legal quagmire.
It is worth noting that the EU, blighted as it might be, is currently passing a law that would set up an enforcement authority. At the very time that we are leaving the EU—supposedly—it now recognises that it has to take additional powers to deal with these unfair trading practices along the whole of the agriculture supply chain, from the farmer to the retailer. That received support from Conservative and Labour MEPs.
This is an important issue, which we make no apology for bringing up at this time in order to look at where we are in terms of the powers invested in the Groceries Code Adjudicator, whether those powers should be increased on the face of the Bill—something we could do here—and whether that would deal with some of the intermediary abuses that, at the moment, are not within the aegis of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I hope to be fairly brief. I will address amendment 111 first, because it links directly to amendments 93 and 94. In the event that amendments 93 and 94 are unsuccessful, and therefore the fair dealing measures in the Bill cover only the relationship between a farmer and the first buyer, amendment 111 has been tabled to address a potential unintended consequence of imposing these obligations on first purchasers, namely that producers who act as aggregators for their neighbours could potentially be classified as purchasers.
It is common practice here and overseas that if one producer has the infrastructure, skills or time, they may collate the produce on behalf of local farmers. A farmer with a big barn or storage facility may aggregate apples in a packhouse for neighbouring growers in his or her part of Kent or East Anglia. A bean grower in Kenya may do the same for neighbouring farmers. Amendment 111 ensures that those aggregators will still be classed as producers, and that they are then within the scope of protection.
Amendment 112 is about the sector-specific statutory codes. We have been told that they will initially be introduced in sectors where voluntary codes have been unable to significantly improve contractual relationships. I know that in evidence it was suggested that dairy would be the first sector to have the code applied, because it is seen that the current arrangements are not working that well. There is concern that certain sectors will have priority and that the Government will never get around to actually bringing other sectors into the scope of the statutory codes, for example for the fruit and veg sector. There would then be powers to support fair purchasing in the dairy sector, but not other sectors. Amendment 112 is simply about ensuring that the codes are not confined to certain sectors but apply to all sectors. I have lengthy notes on the rest of it, but I think I will leave it at that.
Thank you, Sir Roger.
I am minded to support the other Opposition amendments in this group, barring amendment 111, mainly because I am not entirely clear what its purpose is and I am a bit concerned that it could encroach on devolved responsibilities. Amendment 65 seeks only to ensure that the devolution settlement is respected. It would ensure that Scottish Ministers are able to exercise their powers under the devolution settlement. Agriculture is devolved, as the Secretary of State said in his most recent letter to the Scottish Government, and that should be respected.
Amendment 66 would ensure that those who are directly affected by the regulations are consulted. The Minister has made clear his liking for consultations and has said how much he values the input of those affected, so I am sure he will welcome the chance to put that into the Bill.
I shall begin by touching on amendment 48. Since the shadow Minister has not sought to remake an argument we have had many times, I will refrain from quoting from the Agriculture Act 1947 on this occasion.
I turn to the more substantive collection of amendments—93, 94 and 95—which seek to broaden the measure and to remove the requirement for it to apply to the first purchaser of agricultural produce. I understand the shadow Minister’s point, but I want to explain why we have adopted this approach. As he is aware, the Groceries Code Adjudicator enforces the groceries code for the 10 largest supermarkets—those with the largest turnover—and is funded by a levy on those retailers. It has been successful because it is focused on the key task of improving the relationship between the very sizeable retailers and their suppliers, which are often far smaller.
However, for a couple of years now people have raised concerns about the fact that some farmers do not directly supply the supermarkets. Indeed, although in sectors such as fruit and veg it is quite common for an individual farmer or grower to supply a supermarket, in other sectors—notably beef, lamb and dairy—farmers supply processors and abattoirs instead; they do not supply their produce directly to the supermarket. The point has been made that they do not benefit from the protection of the groceries code and the Groceries Code Adjudicator.
Anecdotally, there are sometimes problems with processors finding it easier to pass costs and breaches of the code on to the farmers than to have a difficult conversation with the retailer and tell it that it is in breach of the code, or to report it to the Groceries Code Adjudicator. For that reason, we said, “Let’s also address the problem at the other end of the scale.” The problem we are trying to address in the Agriculture Bill is that primary producers—farmers—are price takers and are often not sure what they will be paid until their animal has gone through the slaughter line. They can then end up with all sorts of costs that they did not expect and penalties that they could not have predicted. We therefore tried to address that unfairness by keeping the focus of these provisions on the first purchasers.
Does the Minister accept that large companies are extremely good at creating wholly-owned subsidiaries, often for fairly spurious purposes, such as avoiding taxes or legislation? If this measure is restricted to first purchasers, it is entirely possible that completely new and unnecessary organisations will be created to be the first purchaser simply to avoid the regulations that would otherwise apply to everybody along the food chain.
The only way that a processor could do that would be if they literally became a farmer. Setting up a sham subsidiary company that buys from the farmer and sells to a middle man would still be caught by these provisions, because the vehicle company would still be required to abide by the terms that are set out through these regulations. We thought about this hard and our conclusion was that if the challenge is the fact that farmers are too often price takers, are too fragmented and do not have sufficient clout in the supply chain, let us have a very targeted, focused approach to ensuring that we address that unfairness.
The problem with broadening the provision to anyone in the supply chain, so it could be a haulage company transporting lettuces or someone who has bought something and sold it on, is that it is broadened to many more relationships. Then it becomes difficult to justify all the requirements and purposes set out, because they are very much designed for farm businesses.
We have heard about the case where milk crosses the Irish border on a number of occasions—it was almost like trying to hit a moving target. That is why these amendments are not really practical.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We should remain focused on the challenge we are trying to address: why do farmers not get a fair price for the food they produce? Why do they end up too often being price takers and why do they need public support and subsidies in order to break even? The answer is often in the way the supply chain works to their disadvantage. Let us tackle the causes of that disadvantage and have an Agriculture Bill that is specifically targeted at agriculture.
Amendment 112, tabled by the hon. Member for Bristol East, sought to state “all agricultural products” rather than “agricultural products”. However, we believe that we have already addressed that through part 2 of schedule 1, which we will come to. That lists agricultural sectors relevant to the producer organisation and fair dealing provisions. It is pretty exhaustive, and for the hon. Lady it has the term “other plants” at the end, which will capture everything that might be of interest to her particular diet. [Interruption.] Timber is another issue, but part 3 of schedule 1 creates the power to add to that.
We based the list on the contours of EU law and tried to have quite an exhaustive list. Timber is not on that list at the moment but there would be nothing to stop us from adding it, although we would have to consider whether it is appropriate to do so. We are predominantly looking at farmers and their relationship with processors. We have a particular problem with the dairy, beef and sheep industries, and that is the primary purpose here.
The regulations that we can make under part 3 of schedule 1 give us the power to add additional things. Although I am Agriculture Minister, I do not cover forestry and timber, so I will need to discuss that with my ministerial colleagues. It is certainly an option and the provision is there to enable us to add products.
I feel that this will be one of those unexpected issues that returns on Report. I will undertake in the meantime to talk to my ministerial colleagues responsible for the forestry industry.
Amendment 65 is a similar provision to that which we discussed in an earlier debate on producer organisations. It seeks to ensure that we could make measures in that area only with the consent of Scottish Ministers. We have adopted that approach because it is a competition matter that deals with the ability to have contractual changes linked directly to competition law—that is why it is a reserved matter. We are not doing anything new in that regard. The current Groceries Code Adjudicator is a UK-wide body; it operates UK-wide and the legislation that underpins it is UK-wide. The EU milk package is an example of a contractual fair-dealing provision under EU law. It applies UK-wide and can only be switched on and implemented on a UK basis. It is therefore a well-established fact that such issues, which pertain directly to competition law, are a reserved matter to be handled by the UK Government. That is why we do not accept that the provisions are necessary or acceptable.
I thank the Minister for his explanation but the Scottish Government do not agree with his interpretation of that; nor do I. We think that it requires the Scottish Parliament’s consent because it is for devolved purposes, namely the regulation of unfair contractual terms in commercial contracts by agricultural producers in Scotland. It does not relate to the competition law reservation, which is specifically directed at the regulation of anti-competitive agreements.
Although it might do so in a different way, it relates to competition law and is not an exemption from the chapter 1 requirements that we discussed earlier. The hon. Lady has not complained about the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which is administered on a UK basis and operates UK-wide; nor has she raised huge concerns about the way that the EU has always approached those matters, which is that they are a UK-wide competency and that switching on elements of the milk package is a UK decision and can be done only on a UK-wide basis. I hope that I have addressed the issues raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith about the role of Scotland in this reserved matter, and reassured the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Bristol East that their amendments are unnecessary since they are provided for in part 2 of schedule 1.
I hear what the Minister says and he will be pleased to learn that I will not press amendment 48 to a Division, but I am very concerned that the Bill has not been as clearly and cleverly scrutinised as it could have been because we were not able to meet a number of the organisations. I would have liked to ask the Groceries Code Adjudicator how the Bill could have made the authority more effective, but we did not get that chance. I do not know why she did not come; perhaps we were not as enticing as we might have been, or perhaps she did not get the push from Government.
It is important: this part of the Bill is about competition, fairness and accountability, yet we are in the dark, hoping that some of it will be carried through. The Minister has kindly given way on timber and we might see that somewhere in a schedule on Report, when he has talked to his colleagues. We are somewhat less than impressed by the Bill, and we need to nail down the legislation, in that we have producers believing that the Groceries Code Adjudicator is not able to function as effectively as she could, yet when we get the opportunity with some legislation to allow her additional powers those powers are not forthcoming.
We will not press amendment 48 to a vote, but we will certainly press amendment 93. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Forgive me. I rose earlier, so I thought that I would be called.
“(aa) for the identity of any person who has made a complaint relating to alleged non-compliance to be held in confidence and not disclosed during any investigation into their complaint;”.
This amendment would provide for the confidentiality of persons who raise complaints under the fair dealing obligations provided by Clause 25.
“(aa) for an investigation to be launched where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that there is non-compliance;”.
This amendment would provide for investigations to be undertaken under the fair dealing obligations provided by Clause 25 where there are reasonable suspicions, but no complaint has been made.
I hope not to delay us that much longer, because I think we are past the bewitching hour and we keep losing members—at this rate, the Whips are going to have to find someone non-existent to pair with—but it is important that we dwell on the issue for a few minutes.
Again, this amendment may not be that crucial to the Bill in the great import of things, but a number of organisations feel quite strongly about where this part of clause 25 is taking us. It is all about fair dealing and the obligations of the first purchaser of agricultural products. We have argued that that should not necessarily reside with the first purchaser, but should be across the food chain.
Amendment 86, which has the support of a number of non-governmental organisations, is about maintaining the confidentiality of complainants. That is vital, because they would not necessarily pursue a complaint without that confidentiality; evidence from the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s review highlighted that as an ongoing issue. The imbalances of power in many grocery supply chains create a climate of fear in which small suppliers are unwilling to speak out for fear of commercial reprisals. This reticence is understandable, because once a supplier is blacklisted regarding their ability to supply a particular food chain, that tends to become total and ongoing. Smaller players often rely on a single buyer for large proportions of their business—sometimes it is 100%. Even when a regulator is in place, suppliers still have concerns about coming forward. There is a need to ensure that there no single supplier is exposed to possible retribution by a more powerful mid-tier supplier and retailer.
Following an investigation, the new body should make relevant recommendations to deter poor practice, including penalising mid-chain suppliers or retailers found guilty of breaching the code. It is important to be clear that the confidentiality provided by this amendment is different from anonymity. We recognise that if the party bringing the complaint wants compensation regarding their specific case, they will of course need to be identified. It is not as though that confidentiality can be kept in place indefinitely, particularly where monetary compensation is required. The principle of the confidentiality of the identity of the complainants being waived only with their express consent is critical in ensuring that producers feel confident coming forward. That is exactly how the Groceries Code Adjudicator works, so we want to extend it along the food chain.
Amendment 87 would allow the enforcement body to undertake investigations without specific complaints, and again this is where we want to boost the power of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. An effective enforcement body must be able to hold the trust of suppliers and keep any evidence confidential until there might be some monetary arrangement, which would require going on the record. To achieve this, an enforcement body should also have the power to investigate potential transgressions under its own initiative, rather than require the submission of compelling evidence before it acts. My understanding is that that is what the Groceries Code Adjudicator has herself asked for. It would be surprised if she has not, because it completes her powers and responsibilities. The spotlight is taken away from suppliers and potential complainants, so it is on the Groceries Code Adjudicator herself to take those complaints forward. Without this clause we may see the enforcement body unable to identify issues that are either specific to one chain or one problematic behaviour activity, but where no single producer has been able to complain, directly for fear of delisting—that is a more appropriate term, I accept.
As I explained about amendment 86, there is a climate of fear. Therefore, we feel that proactive action by the regulator is vital. We want the Government to look seriously at this and use this legislation to enhance the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, something that a number of us across the House have called for. We are seeking to use this legislation to do that because our producers feel that too often the Groceries Code Adjudicator is constrained by her inability to work across the food chain and to guarantee confidentiality and, when there is monetary consideration concerned, that this has been through due process.
I hope the Minister will give us the opportunity to consider how he can ensure that confidentiality is guaranteed, but also guarantee the enhanced powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Again, this may not be the most important part of the Bill, but for producers who feel that they have fallen foul of the process and have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich said, felt bullied, intimidated or delisted from selling their products in the right and fair manner, we should use the Bill to put that right.
The amendments are linked to a common sentiment that we hear from farmers. There is no doubt that a number of people will say that they fear reprisals, consequences of being delisted or losing business if they were to complain. That has been recognised for some time. That is why we made changes early on to the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, to enable her to receive complaints anonymously and pursue investigations when she had reasonable cause to believe there was a problem with a particular supermarket, and indeed to allow a trade body such as the National Farmers Union to pass on intelligence about the conduct of a particular supermarket that could inform an investigation. Even within the GCA, which is predominantly a complaints body, we have found the scope for anonymous whistleblowing and for third-party organisations to pass on concerns.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to subsection (5)(a) and (b). The specific issues he raises can be addressed through regulations. Subsection (5)(a) makes provision for regulations
“for complaints relating to alleged non-compliance to be referred to a specified person”.
And, crucially, subsection (5)(b) states
“as to how those complaints are to be investigated and how an allegation of non-compliance is to be determined”.
It is absolutely within the powers set out in subsection (5) for us to introduce regulations that would guarantee anonymity and enable complaints from third-party organisations, when they can hand on intelligence or create the scope for a regulator to investigate, when there is reasonable cause to believe there is a problem. I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we think the particular issue that he seeks to address in amendment 86 is already provided for in subsection (5)(a) and (b).
Finally, although we hear a lot about this, Christine Tacon from the Groceries Code Adjudicator says that one of the most powerful things that can be done is for people working for processors and dealing with supermarkets to have assertiveness training, because we can put in place all the right regulations and have all the abilities in the world for people to report things anonymously, but there is a point at which people have to take responsibility and be willing to say to a supermarket buyer, “You know I cannot agree to that, because it is a breach of the code and what you are asking me to do is in breach of the law.” She said that when the GCA has placed people from those organisations’ sales teams on to assertiveness training, they have learnt how to use the code themselves without having to always run to her for an intervention.
I find this quaintly interesting, because my experience of the milk trade is that they lack anything but assertiveness. There are more four-letter words in their way of trying to do business than could be heard on a football pitch on a Sunday morning. Sadly, it is not just about assertiveness, but fairness and the way in which this can be taken up by the Groceries Code Adjudicator. That is why a number of organisations—as always, at the top there is a whole series of different bodies—feel strongly that this needs additional powers to be vested in the Groceries Code Adjudicator. I hope the Minister has listened to that and will act on it.
As I said, the GCA already has the powers to receive complaints anonymously and to investigate, where she has reason to suspect a breach of the code. That is already in place.
My point is not that this is not a legitimate issue—of course, as I said, the regulations can provide for anonymity—but that at some time we need people to have the confidence and courage to say, “I will not agree with that. It is against the code—you know it’s against the statutory code—and you shouldn’t be asking me to do it.” For such things to work properly, we need the farmers and sellers also to hold people to what is a legal requirement. They can play their part and, where they are willing to do so, that can make all the difference.
Amendment 87 is similar—it is about being able to launch investigations when there are reasonable grounds to suspect non-compliance, rather than when there is a complaint. Again, we believe that we can provide for that. It is important to note that whatever is set out as a legal requirement in clause 25(3) will be a legal requirement whether or not there is a complaint. Subsection (5) deals predominantly with complaints and how they are handled, we do not envisage the body as simply a complaints-handling one; we see it as an enforcement body that will enforce all the legal requirements introduced under the Bill, specifically clause 25. It will not only handle complaints and pass them on.
Conservative Members, too, have concerns about the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Farmers and suppliers tell me regularly that the GCA’s teeth are not sharp enough. Will the Minister reassure me, as he has the Opposition, that there are provisions not only in the Bill but in other places where the powers are strong enough, and that if we need to increase the powers there is a mechanism to do so?
The clause provides quite strong powers, including those to impose penalties for non-compliance on the first purchaser of agricultural products. If such a first purchaser happens to be a major retailer— perhaps one not currently covered by the groceries code, because it is below a certain threshold—it will be covered by the Bill. By addressing the problem from both ends of the telescope, we have a workable solution that means we can really deliver for the interests of farmers while not losing the successes of the Groceries Code Adjudicator model.
Having given that reassurance that the issues raised by the hon. Member for Stroud in amendments 86 and 87 can already be addressed through regulations under subsection (5), I hope that he will accept it and withdraw his amendments.
I thought that the intervention made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire was apposite. We are improving the legislative framework, including toughening up the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and specifically—in my amendments—we could ensure that people feel confident that there is a confidential arrangement between them and the Groceries Code Adjudicator so that they may pursue their actions.
As much as I like the Minister and hear what he says, this is how we improve legislation—we want to put something very important in the Bill. We know why so many producers do not choose to pursue a course of action against someone who has treated them unfairly: they are frightened. We will press the amendment to a vote—though we might not win—and the Minister is hearing from his own Back Benchers that this needs to be revisited on Report. We want to ensure that the Groceries Code Adjudicator can exercise all her powers, including along the food chain—because at the moment it seems to be very much a one-way street, which is why she is less effective than she could be. Also, producers feel that they are often let down, because they are not able to carry through regarding the unfair practices that they face.
This little amendment—it is very small—would dramatically change the power relationship. I hope the Minister will accept in good faith that we are pressing it to a vote so that he can reflect on it when it comes back on Report and strengthen this bit of the Bill.
Sadly—I thought we might have enticed the hon. Gentleman over to this side. It could have made all the difference, and the Government would have, in due course, thought that it was great that Back Benchers spoke for themselves and voted accordingly. One always has these hopes that might be dashed at a later stage. We will press the amendment to a vote, but we hope the Government will understand that we are willing and able to see how this can be improved on Report.