Meet Britain’s first supermarket ombudsman, Christine Tacon, who must adjudicate in farmer-retailer disputes. Johann Tasker discovers how she will do it
You have worked on the farming and retail sides of the food chain – this is a different job but it seems almost made for you. Is that how you feel?
It is not just adjudicating between farmers and retailers, it is a much broader scope than that. It is about everyone in the supply chain. It could involve fast-moving consumer goods or overseas producers – you don’t have to be British. Any of them could make a complaint as well. And I have experience of working for Mars and Anchor too, so I think I am even more suited to it than you have just said, because I also have experience of large multinationals.
It will mean a fine balancing act, though, don’t you think?
I am not here just to represent the farming industry. It is a completely independent role. When you do an investigation, it could be an investigation into a practice across retailers – rather than an investigation into a single retailer and a single supplier.
Having been a farmer, and knowing what goes on, I don’t think they are going to find it easy to pull the wool over my eyes. Having the experience will be a help rather than a hindrance. The other point to realise is that the adjudicator can delegate an investigation to a third party if they think there is a conflict of interest.
Tacon in a minute
- Past jobs: Managing director, Co-operative Farms; brand management, Mars and Vodafone; marketing director, Anchor Foods; marketing director, Redland Brick.
- How do you relax? I don’t relax – I just do different things. Change is change for me. I have a narrowboat, which people say is relaxing, but it isn’t going up a flight of locks. Even on a long stretch, when there is nothing going on, I tend to be on the towpath with the dogs.
- You have another unusual hobby – vintage cars. I was brought up doing the London to Brighton run every year. It is our annual family get-together. They are incredibly difficult cars to drive – you feel like you’ve run a marathon by the time you have finished.
- What is your biggest life achievement? Does it sound corny if I say my two children? On a professional level, I am immensely proud of turning around the fortunes of Co-operative Farms, especially because it was an industry I knew nothing about when I started.
- Which living person do you most admire? I have never thought about it. But it would probably be a woman. I am fascinated by the media and the power of the media – people like Jenni Murray or Sheila Dillon are journalists and broadcasters able to raise the profile of issues and make a difference. They push the boundaries.
- What was the last film you saw? It was Life of Pi. I didn’t see the film in 3D but I loved the book. There was so much double meaning in it – it was awesome.
What will your priority be?
The first thing I have to do is produce guidance detailing how I am going to operate. I will start doing that straight away. I also have to make a set of recommendations on the penalties I think would be appropriate for those found to be in breach of the code. During that time I want to meet all the stakeholders – including representatives from the farming industry, retailers and trade associations – because I think it will inform my guidance.
Will you be taking a proactive approach to investigations?
No. The role is to respond to complaints. I will have to receive a complaint before I can investigate – and I can decide whether to investigate. There are two main aspects to the job – for the first, the clue is in the name: it is to arbitrate in disputes.
The investigation role is where people might complain about certain practices but not want to go to arbitration because they want to retain their anonymity. In those cases, there will have to be a reasonable body of evidence for me to investigate in more detail.
The job specification says the adjudicator must ensure that retailers “deal lawfully and fairly with their suppliers”. How do you define what is fair?
This is a key message to get across: my role is about enforcing the groceries code. The code says nothing about prices, for example. It is about adhering to contracts – about not asking for retrospective payments and other prohibited practices.
In the past, contracts might have specified that a food producer should buy packaging from a certain supplier, even though the producer might be able to buy it cheaper elsewhere because the retailer is getting a cut back. It is those sorts of things.
At the end of the day, what somebody agrees in a contract with a retailer on price is not covered in the code of practice.
How about dairy farmers who have found themselves locked into long-term supply contracts?
If a contract says it is for 12 months and farmers have signed up to it, then it isn’t a breach of the code.
What kind of evidence would you expect to see in order to take a breach claim seriously?
That is partly what I will be covering when I write the guidance. I have to think about what people will have to do. But one of the things that has been very important since the beginning is that people [who bring complaints] will have the right to anonymity. I will need to know who they are but I also have a duty to protect their anonymity. So if investigating a specific situation risks an individual being identified, then that investigation will be broadened so that their identity is protected.
But I expect the job to involve more arbitration than investigation. I expect there will be between two and four investigations each year. Investigating won’t be something I am doing every week, but arbitration I expect I will be doing quite a bit.
Many farmers will think it a shame you can’t investigate past breaches.
I can’t investigate retrospectively, but if somebody says they have a current breach and they have evidence that it has been going on since the code was introduced [in February 2010], then it is relevant. You have to bear in mind that the code has been in force since then.
You have the power to fine – but what about compensation?
Once an investigation is complete, I have the power to make recommendations, saying whether behaviour is a breach of the code and shouldn’t take place anymore. The next power on the scale of seriousness is requiring the retailer to publish an apology – the naming and shaming.
The third power is the power to fine. That is a fine of the retailer, not compensation for people who have been affected. But because the retailer has been fined, people will probably find it easier to obtain compensation through the courts.
Will you be continuing to hold your non-executive roles with farming-related companies?
Yes – because none of them is a direct supplier to retailers by a very long way. The code only applies to direct suppliers. The adjudicator is a part-time role – up to three days a week – and I need to be allowed to fill the rest of my time.
There is no clear guidance – but I have no current conflicts of interest. What [the government] has said to me is: “How will it look? How will it be perceived?” I have to feel I can justify there are no conflicts of interest and I am confident I can do that.