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House of Commons Hansard
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Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill (Money)
23 March 2010
Volume 508

Queen’s recommendation signified.

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I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of expenditure incurred by the Office of Fair Trading in consequence of the Act.

The Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and received a Second Reading on 5 March. It awaits a date for Committee. The Bill provides for the creation of a grocery market ombudsman and sets out a number of rules against which the ombudsman will monitor and enforce compliance with the grocery supply code of practice. It is anticipated that the Bill will result in expenditure being incurred by the Office of Fair Trading, which will be paid out of money provided by Parliament. Accordingly, a money resolution is required so that the Bill may be debated in Committee. I understand that it is supported by all the Front Benchers of all the major parties and was unopposed on Second Reading.

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The Minister is supported by most sensible people on both dies of the House. However, can he explain why he is introducing a money resolution and a Ways and Means motion today given that, as far as I know, there is no indication that the Government are going to provide any extra time for private Members’ Bills in order to allow this Bill to make progress? That is what is needed.

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I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see about that. However, we will, of course, need to ensure that the views expressed by respondents to the consultation are adequately reflected in the legislation that will bring the ombudsman into being. The provision of funding to the Office of Fair Trading for expenditure incurred for enforcement of the grocery supply code of practice is necessary if the aims of the Bill are to be achieved. I commend the resolution to the House.

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I rise merely to say that Conservative Members are entirely in tune with these provisions. We have already made any points that we wanted to make when the Bill was debated a couple of Fridays ago. I endorse the Minister’s point that there is support for it on my side of the House, and we therefore do not propose to oppose the resolution.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, it is a pity that the Government have not indicated that they will give us the extra time needed to allow private Members’ Bills that have support on both sides of the House to proceed. Despite that rather substantial difficulty, I certainly concur with the comments of the Minister and his opposite number. Liberal Democrat Members would like to the Bill to proceed as quickly as possible.

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I spoke against this Bill on Second Reading, albeit quite briefly, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) spoke against it at greater length. Unfortunately, he is not here this evening because he is with a school party visiting the holocaust memorials in Germany. However, I have been able to communicate with him today by telephone, and I know that he shares my reservations about the financial aspect of the Bill, which is what the resolution deals with—the expenditure of more taxpayers’ money.

It is ironic that on the eve of the Budget, when the Chancellor will doubtless reveal that we are seriously in the red as a country and will have to reduce expenditure and increase taxes, we can be thinking of allowing such a provision to go through, perhaps unopposed, on the basis that it is a good idea. Up and down the country, there are families who are saying, “This is desirable, and we’d like to do it, but we can’t afford it.” When are we going to hear any Front Bencher say, “It may be desirable, and we are in favour of it, but we just can’t afford it”? I am contributing to this debate in the hope that in the wind-ups the Minister will explain why, when the Government are in such a parlous position in relation to the economy, they think that the expenditure of money on this proposition is worth while and should go ahead irrespective of whether it can be afforded.

Clause 11(1) says:

“The OFT must directly fund all the costs associated with the Ombudsman.”

One way of avoiding my criticisms of the Bill, certainly as regards its finances, would be to say that the Office of Fair Trading would have to make compensatory savings for any expenditure incurred as a result of its provisions. As I understand it, that is the position that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) put forward during the Second Reading debate when he said that he wanted a much leaner and meaner arrangement for dealing with this within the OFT itself. Obviously, if the OFT were able to find compensatory savings, there would not be any additional expenditure for the taxpayer as a result of the Bill, and this money resolution might not be necessary.

I took the liberty of having a peek at the OFT’s annual report and resource accounts for the last financial year, and I saw that it had a net operating cost of some £56 million. One might have thought that it might be able to find some savings from within that enormous sum of expenditure. I then looked to see whether any of those savings might come from a different remuneration deal for the key players in this organisation, and I saw that last year its chief executive was paid in the salary range of £270,000 to £275,000 and its chairman was paid in the salary range of £170,000 to £175,000. It should not be beyond the wit of the OFT to find some savings to enable the Bill to be carried through without additional cost to the taxpayer.

The Ways and Means motion, which we will discuss shortly, deals with what I think is even worse than a direct imposition on the taxpayer—a back-handed way of forcing up the prices of goods in the supermarkets through a levy on grocery operators. In the meantime, it is for the Government to assert why they believe that this measure is affordable and to explain more than the Minister has done so far what their intentions are in relation to the future passage of the Bill through this House and the other place. It is not satisfactory to say that there is no more time available for private Members’ business, as there could have been if the amendment to the Government’s plans moved so ably earlier this year by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone)—I am pleased to see him in his place—had been accepted. That would have made it possible to have had debates on private Members’ business this coming Friday, but that was ruled out by the Government. I hope that in winding up this short debate the Minister will at least tell us whether he has plans for the Bill to proceed with a Report stage and Third Reading in this House before Dissolution.

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Was my hon. Friend surprised by the speed with which the Minister moved the motion? [Hon. Members: “You missed it!”] That is the point—I missed it because he was so speedy. Is the crux of my hon. Friend’s argument that there is no need for this money resolution because savings could be made elsewhere?

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On too many occasions, the Government try to smuggle business through this House. They seem to be under the impression that because there can be some superficial deal between the Front Benchers, people outside need not be expected to be able to have a say. We know that this Bill is strongly opposed by the British Retail Consortium—

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Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could now come back to the money resolution.

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Absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

One of the reasons why the BRC and other organisations oppose the Bill is that they think that it is going to impose extra burdens on the taxpayer. The argument does not need to be developed at any great length, but it is one of principle. How many people in the House are in tune with people outside in recognising that we are in a dire financial crisis and that the issue of affordability should be taken seriously? In my humble submission, the Bill, however desirable it might be, is unaffordable. That is why I am against the money resolution.

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I rise to make two quick points in opposition to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). Having followed the issue through from the outset, my understanding is that most of the expenditure involved is, in a sense, historical, because the OFT has done its work. It was inevitable that the Government would have to bring the resolution forward, but the Bill will not incur much expenditure.

More importantly, what is the point of having an Office of Fair Trading if we are not going to listen to its recommendations? I know that that thought has steeled my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who introduced this excellent Bill, and the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), who has led the campaign admirably. It is only right that we see the Bill through, and I hope that the money resolution will be passed unanimously. There is clearly a view that it is needed, and needed now.

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I rise simply to say that I am concerned, because of what the Minister has said and the chicanery that I see at work, to know whether there has been an attempt to manoeuvre procedures in order to prevent us from considering the Bill properly in the normal fashion. Will it simply be left to the wash-up so that it goes through without any consideration? I believe the Bill has merit, but the way it is being taken through has none.

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I am pleased to follow, and agree with, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash): as the Member in charge of the Bill, I believe that it is has a lot of merit. We had an honest and open debate about it, in which the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) took part and tried to muster support against it but failed miserably. The only supporter that he had is in Germany today; he was unable even to get him into this country to oppose the Bill.

I support the money resolution. We need to move forward, and I believe that we are building a strong consensus. The hon. Member for Christchurch can name only the British Retail Consortium to support his point, and only senior members of that. Many of its individual members support the Bill. I believe that the supermarkets will come on board and the Bill will be the way forward, but it does have some start-up costs.

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Does the hon. Gentleman expect the Bill to get on to the statute book during this Parliament, and if so, by what means?

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I am certainly working through the procedures, and that is why we are here tonight. The Government have agreed to give the Bill time, and I will try to get it into Committee on the 30th of this month if the resolution is passed. I hope we can move forward as quickly as possible.

The principle of the Bill is sound. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, there are some start-up costs to get the scheme going. I describe the Bill and the grocery market as a game of rugby. We need to have a referee, and that referee needs help and support. The money resolution will provide that.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the inevitable inference from what the Conservatives who oppose the Bill say is that economic difficulties should be unloaded on to small grocery stores? In other words, those Members’ solution to the recession is to carry on subjugating the people who will be least able to afford to continue running their businesses.

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Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises that this is not the time to open up that kind of debate.

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I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had a wide debate on the Bill, and I have to correct the hon. Gentleman—it is not the Conservative party that is against the Bill; it is in favour of it. One or two of its members, only one of whom is in the country at the moment, oppose it.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for moving the Bill forward. In the fine tradition of naming these watchdogs, such as Ofcom and Ofgas, may I proffer a name for the new watchdog body for the supermarkets of Oftrolley?

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Order. The House might just think about that for a moment.

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I am sure we will all consider that, but I want the House to think seriously about the money resolution and support it.

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I understand the opposition of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) to any public expenditure on a lot of matters that are brought before the House, but there is a wide consensus behind the Bill across the country—outside the House as well as inside. A lot of evidence was taken and presented to the Government before we decided to support the Bill and the creation of a grocery ombudsman. The debate on the ways and means motion may answer some of the questions that have been raised during this debate.

Question put and agreed to.