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Grocery Ombudsman

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

9. What plans he has to respond to the Competition Commission’s recommendation for the creation of a grocery supply chain ombudsman. (310584)

My Department published the Government’s response to the Competition Competition’s recommendation for the creation of a grocery supply chain ombudsman yesterday. The Government have accepted the need for independent enforcement of the grocery supply code of practice, and we will consult on the detail of the body and its powers.

As I chair the grocery market action group, perhaps I should declare an interest. I have been campaigning for this for the best part of 10 years. Therefore, I warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement yesterday—I have to say, it was not before time. What timetable does he envisage for the implementation of this vital recommendation, bearing in mind that although the grocery supply code of practice will be unenforced, it will be implemented on 4 February?

On the time taken, the Competition Commission made its formal request to the Government only last August. In the meantime, I have met the hon. Gentleman and his group, the British Retail Consortium, the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation, Consumer Focus, Divine Chocolate and the Office of Fair Trading, so a proper consultation has been taking place. The formal consultation will start shortly after the code comes into force on 4 February. How quickly we can implement the measures depends on the solution and whether or not it needs legislation, and that will ultimately depend on the design of the body.

Of course we welcome movement on this from the Government, but we need real teeth and real power. The power of the supermarkets puts pressure on the farmers, and we want fair farm-gate prices and a purchasing policy for local communities. That would provide the teeth and the power we need. We need that commitment from the Minister.

Of course the purpose of the enforcement body is to enforce the code, which has been broadly welcomed by everyone as having the teeth necessary. We just need to ensure that it is independently enforced, and we have accepted the case for that. Ultimately, we accepted it on the grounds that the Competition Commission made it clear that it believed that in the long term this was in the interests of shoppers and consumers, because it would provide the kind of certainty in the supply chain that will produce better prices and choices for them.

Does the Minister regard the appointment and powers of this ombudsman to be complementary to or in addition to the existing powers of the OFT and the Competition Commission, which, as he will know, have held almost continuous inquiries into the supermarket sector over the past decade or so?

The powers of those bodies remain as they were previously in the event of there being matters that they need to investigate. The job of the independent ombudsman will principally be to enforce the code, but we are also consulting, as part of how we design the body, on exactly what the powers will be.