Parliamentary sketch – Against all odds….

Posted on: 22nd November 2012

Successfully campaigning to help protect farmers, growers and other suppliers from the often “bully-boy” tactics of large supermarket buyers wasn’t an overnight pushover.  It’s taken a decade and a half of attrition and perseverance.

This is a story I hope will reassure those who fear that small voices are never heard and encourage those who campaign against vested interests and overwhelming odds.

When I was first elected in May 1997 my then Parliamentary colleague, Colin Breed (MP for South East Cornwall) commenced work looking at the power of the larger supermarkets; work for which he should be congratulated.

He, like I, celebrate the success of British companies (like Tesco and Sainsbury’s).  We didn’t believe that their treatment of weaker suppliers (especially farmers and growers in the UK and the developing world) was wicked.  In a competitive market their behaviour was rational.  If they didn’t squeeze every drop of competitive advantage from their suppliers when their competitors did then they would risk losing market share.

The problem was that the retrospective changes to often verbal agreements were almost always to meet supermarket targets rather than to build supplier business.  This included changes to payments, late payment, promotions paid for entirely by the supplier, late returns of unsaleable fresh produce and other short notice changes to agreements.

The Competition Commission reported in 2000 that some larger supermarkets were engaged in unfair dealing and proposed a voluntary code of practice to improve the trading relationship.

We monitored whether the voluntary code would improve things.  It wasn’t.  I proposed that we needed firm regulation to protect suppliers.  I had difficulty even getting my own Party to take notice.  They said that supermarkets were popular and we shouldn’t knock them.  The then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was courting supermarket chief executives and the Conservatives, who had some senior supermarket executives as MPs, dismissed the idea out of hand.

With the situation worsening for farmers and other suppliers I gathered a group of organisations which shared the same concerns.  This included bodies that were not usual bedfellows.  The NFU and Friends of the Earth, Traidcraft and the Country Land and Business Association, Action Aid and the British Fruit Growers’ Assoc.  We formed a Grocery Market Action Group 7 years ago.

We presented evidence to the Competition Authorities, winning arguments and helping to persuade that more needed to be done.  In 2008 the Competition Commission proposed a regulator and new regulation.  By then I’d managed to persuade my own Party to support.  We only had to persuade the other two!

We dared them both in a session of “who’ll blink first” just before the last General Election and got both to add to their manifesto commitments.  So with all three signed up we could go forward!

I know it’s still taken another 2½ years, but we’re now nearly there.  The Supermarket Watchdog (or Grocery Adjudicator) Bill has just had its Second Reading (i.e. first formal debate) and should be set up by next Spring; providing support and reassurance to farmers and other suppliers.  It’s an important first step in getting a fair trading relationship between the Supermarket giants and their often minnow size suppliers.

A hard won victory for fair dealing and proof that with determination and guile it is possible to win battles against all the odds.

Andrew George MP

20th November 2012