The Groceries Code Adjudicator – hungry for more

The new Chair of the EFRA Committee wants the GCA to have stronger powers but is it too early?

It’s been two and a half years since Christine Tacon was appointed to the newly created “supermarket ombudsman’s” role. Despite only a limited timeframe to assess its effectiveness, the Labour party campaigned for an expansion to the remit of the role at the last election.  So is it delivering change or is there appetite for more power?

Tacon believes she is making some in-roads, but that it will “take a while for the role to be a huge success”. Many practices that she examines are in what she has termed a “grey area” of compliance with the code. The sheer volume means that she focusses on just five issues at one time where she feels she can change retailer behaviour. Yesterday, the GCA released its annual survey of complaints raised, which put Tesco as the worst performer being involved in 54 % of complaints made, considerably ahead of the next worst performer, Morrison’s at 26%.

The GCA only has powers to investigate direct suppliers to the major multiples, rather than individual farmers who may be at the end of a complicated supply chain.  The NFU has long-pointed this out as a weakness in the role and campaigned for a “mandatory extension to all links in the supply chain between producers and intermediaries”.  The restriction on who can bring about a complaint means that many farmers say that the GCA has done little to increase the farmgate price which is still too low for them to see any economic viability in their future.  This is a cyclical issue and not a new one. Indeed, in the a recently published 2005 ‘black spider memo’ the Prince of Wales urged the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair to act to release the “arm lock” of the supermarkets over farmers. According to the British Retail Consortium, we have seen deflation of food prices in all but one (Dec 2014) month since November 2014, indicating just how tough the market is for suppliers.

As a dairy farmer, the newly elected Chair of the EFRA committee, Neil Parish is no stranger to the impact of the supermarket price war on farmers. Throughout the last Parliament, he chaired a number of APPGs and sat on the Committee, taking a leading role in the inquiry into milk pricing. He has already announced that it is his intention to hold an inquiry into the GCA’s remit and is particularly interested in hearing from suppliers who have been treated unfairly. Parish is sympathetic to the notion that consumers push for cheaper food but has warned against retailers keeping prices “artificially low” and will look at the GCA’s powers to prevent this.

Currently, Tacon seems focussed on working with the powers that she has rather than pushing for any increase in her remit. The Conservative manifesto does not set out any appetite to expand her role, but simply to champion it.  Parish, on the other hand, clearly has other ideas.