Supermarket watchdog is confirmed at last

The government is facing calls to fast-track a supermarket watchdog to ensure big retailers treat farmers fairly. A Bill to create a groceries adjudicator received an early mention in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday (9 May), making it a government priority.

After campaigning for more than a decade, NFU president Peter Kendall said farmers would be relieved at the announcement. But he added: “We now hope the government will confirm its commitment to levelling the playing field in the grocery supply chain by introducing the Bill early in the new session, which starts today.”

Overwhelming support from all political parties should ensure the Bill’s swift passage. But Mr Kendall said unnecessary provisions could fetter an adjudicator’s ability to investigate unfair practices by supermarkets.

The NFU wants to submit evidence to the adjudicator on behalf of its members. Doing so will allay farmers’ fears about making complaints, the union believes. But a draft version of the Bill suggests the submission of such “third party” evidence will be prohibited.

There is also doubt that an adjudicator will be able to fine retailers that fall foul of the Groceries Supply Code of Practice. Instead, the government has proposed that unscrupulous supermarkets are named and shamed.

The Country Land and Business Association said it would be vital for the adjudicator to have the power to fine supermarkets where trading standards had been breached. “Without this sanction, it could become a toothless watchdog,” said CLA president Harry Cotterell.

Either way, adding such powers to the Bill will face stiff opposition from supermarkets. Every new demand that affected the retail sector would add bureaucracy and costs, said the British Retail Consortium, making it harder to invest, grow and create jobs.

BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: “The most worrying Bill outlined today is the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which duplicates an existing supply code of practice and writes a blank cheque on behalf of the retail sector.”

Shadow DEFRA secretary Mary Creagh said the Bill should be introduced to Parliament as soon as possible to ensure a fair deal for farmers and food producers. “Ministers should publish the Bill so we can see whether the adjudicator will have the tools to do its job effectively,” she added.