MPs citicise delays in establishing supermarket watchdog

THE Government should not waste any more time in creating a supermarket watchdog to protect the interests of consumers and suppliers, MPs warned during a debate in the Commons on Monday.

They were responding to a motion introduced by Shadow Defra Secretary Mary Creagh criticising ‘Government delays’ in setting up the groceries code adjudicator and calling for the adjudicator to have power to fine retailers and for third party bodies to be able to report ‘unfair practices’.

“This Government’s delays and procrastination mean the adjudicator will probably not be up and running until 2014-15m,” she said.

Ms Creagh added: “We want the Government to act swiftly on the grocery ombudsman. That will lead to less pressure on suppliers and an end to unfair competition, and greater price transparency in the supermarket sector.

“We want supermarkets to commit to clearer price labelling, particularly on those buy one, get one free promotions. If they do not do so voluntarily, Government should act.”

However, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George pointed out the Competition Commission’s original report had been published in 2000 and a warning of big supermarkets’ practices was highlighted in 2008 but the previous Labour Government had failed to act.

Mr George, chairman of the national Grocery Market Action Group, stressed the importance of speed in setting up the adjudicator.

He said regulations allowing supermarkets to be fined if they fell below certain standards would be needed if supermarkets’ reputations were to be damaged, which was the only way to persuade them to change their practice.

“It is important to recognise that not all supermarkets and those who will be brought under the code object to the proposal. Supermarkets have been achieving record profits in the deepest recession, so to argue they cannot afford it is rubbish.”

Tory MP Neil Parish added: “If these wonderful supermarkets are not doing anything wrong, they have nothing to fear from the adjudicator.”

Robert Flello (Labour) said supermarkets had been making money ‘left, right and centre, hand over fist’ but at the same time farmers had been struggling.

“The number of farmers now is a fraction of what it was 20 or 30 years ago, and customers and consumers – our constituents – are suffering. We need the adjudicator.”

Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman said the Government was ‘fully committed’ to introducing the adjudicator ‘as soon as possible’. “There is no delay, but it has to be done right.

“The draft Bill provides the adjudicator with the power to name and shame retailers in breach of the code, and we believe, in a highly competitive market, retailers will not risk reputational damage from unacceptable behaviour towards suppliers.”

She said if negative publicity proved insufficient, however, the draft Bill contained a ‘reserve power’ for the adjudicator to impose financial penalties.

The motion was defeated by 293 votes to 223.

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