Winding Up Before Winding Down

Posted on: 18th May 2011

Originally posted on March 30th 2010

When all else fails, try the tablecloth trick!

Politicians try to be responsible, but in the shrill theatre of pantomime politics, with time running out and fewer opportunities to disprove extravagant promises, the pressure to stretch credulity increases. We might all claim that we could cut taxes, increase spending on popular public services and make painless savings others have failed to notice if we didn’t expect to have to prove it. Very tempting. Perhaps the modern day equivalent of a false God?

Against the now audible backdrop of desk-clearing, MPs are trying to maintain the impression of ‘business as usual’. Nevertheless, I have spent much time this week trying to help the Government button-up a new system to enforce fair-dealing for our food producers – i.e. our farmers, growers and fishermen. Throughout the past four years it has been my privilege to Chair a national organisation called the Grocery Market Action Group. Its membership includes:

Friends of the Earth, Association of Convenience Stores, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Rural Shops Alliance, Country Land & Business Association, Association of Master Bakers, British Independent Fruit Growers Association, Action Aid, Traidcraft, British Brands Group, National Farmers Union of England & Wales, National Farmers Union of Scotland, Banana Link, War on Want and Breaking the Armlock Alliance.

One of the most successful sectors of the UK economy in the last decade has been the supermarkets. They have posted record profits during the teeth of the recession.  Meanwhile our farmers have been going out of business in their droves. Our Action Group has taken evidence to the Competition Commission. We’re not accusing the larger supermarkets of being immoral. Their behaviour is merely rational. Anyone of their size would exploit every ounce of their market muscle. The question we have been wrestling with is when clever use of market power becomes an abuse of power; impoverishing and pressurising their suppliers to such a point that it is not in the long term interest of the food supply chain, a sustainable farming sector nor, ultimately, in the long term interests of supermarket shoppers.

This has been a real David and Goliath campaign and we are now on the cusp of bringing in reasonable protections for small farmers and developing world producers. The free market will be left to work. Price setting will be left to the market place. But there will be rules and a referee to make sure that the big boys don’t bully the small guys or girls. The Supermarket Ombudsman may not be something you will notice or affect your life directly, but it will help to bring stability to the grocery supply chain and help our farmers and growers plan for the future, bring forward new innovations and improve the food supply system in Britain.

Not quite a ‘table cloth trick’, but an important step forward. Everything is set up for it to be implemented later this year.