Supermarket watchdog: last push of the campaign trolley?

16 Nov 2012 17:19

by Barbara Crowther, Director of Public Policy

A bill to establish a new supermarket watchdog will be debated again next week in Parliament, but so far Government ministers have refused to establish it with real powers to address unfair treatment of suppliers.

Power in the food supply chain was the subject of the recent debate at the national Fairtrade supporter conference, which can now be watched here. In the UK, when it comes to power, just four supermarkets control three quarters of the entire grocery market, giving their buyers unprecedented leverage with farmers and suppliers to drive harder bargains in return for keeping their products listed. Not surprisingly, not one of the big four has backed the establishment of a new Grocery Code Adjudicator, or supermarket watchdog – in fact the only major retailer to do so has been Waitrose.

According to today’s Daily Mail, ministers have “caved in under pressure from big retailers” and refused to include the power to issue financial penalties in the legislation, something that we, Traidcraft, Action Aid, farmers unions and the Food & Drink Federation have all consistently advocated. As we argued last year, a watchdog without power to fine is like a football referee can blow the whistle but never issue the red card or a penalty.

All is not yet lost. The Bill goes through its second reading in the Commons on Monday 19 November, and several MPs from across the political spectrum are seeking to amend it to include the power to issue fines should any supermarket be found to be passing excessive risk to its suppliers or treating them unfairly. They have the backing of many Fairtrade campaigners who have been lobbying them and sending postcards, such as the action currently being run by our founder member, Traidcraft. If you haven’t done so, you can still email your MP or Government minister Jo Swinson. 

Why do we at the Fairtrade Foundation think this is important? Thinking of a world that by 2050 will need to feed an estimated 9 billion people, it is absolutely critical that we value our food producers, and protect them from unfair trading practices.It is increasingly clear that delivery of an effective sustainable development agenda will require more collaboration through supply chains, and therefore the need for mutually respectful trading relationships too.

To date, UK legislation has been pretty tough in protecting the rights of  consumers, with the Office of Fair Trading able to initiate investigations and penalise wrongdoers. But it has not been effective at always protecting the rights of suppliers, producers and farmers in securing a fair deal. Supermarkets proud of their relationships with their suppliers, and confident in their own fair trading practices ought have nothing to fear from such legislation. Government ministers should listen to those for whom this legislation is advocated – the suppliers themselves – and accede to the demands by MPs calling for change on Monday.

Image ©Marcus Lyons

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