Opinion: We must extend adjudicator's role to ensure fair dealing across food chain

There are many reasons to be proud of South Lincolnshire. Prominent among which is the fact that one third of the nation’s fresh produce is grown here.

This phenomenal achievement is made possible by the tireless hard work of numerous farmers and growers – big and small – and those that work for them. All are stewards of the soil and guardians of the landscape. With this in mind, as we leave the EU, I am determined that the Government grasps the opportunity to support a domestic policy for agriculture and horticulture which will stand the test of time.

Speaking to farmers and growers in my constituency and elsewhere – who have worked the land for generations – I hear time and again about the sharp practices of corporate retailers, the biggest four of which control 73% of the UK grocery market.

Given the telling report published by the Competition Commission, concluding that any business able to control just 8% of a market has the means of exploitative trading, perhaps it is unsurprising that producers are routinely sold short by these soulless supermarket giants.

Unjustifiable deductions from invoices, demands for ‘donations’, late payments (now delayed for an average of 45 days) and, most fundamentally, prices that are barely above the cost of production, all make life intolerable for those who have no choice but to deliver.

As well as predatory purchasing practices, supermarkets do untold environmental damage. Once the norm, short supply chains - ensuring minimal time and distance between production and consumption – have been replaced by global supermarket acquisitions. Instead of buying British produce to be sold locally, supermarkets acquire inferior, foreign food, at the same time attempting to convince us that shipping a strawberry halfway around the world is the epitome of efficiency.

Their seductive grip on consumers, encouraging them to spend more than they need, contributes to voluminous food waste whilst their purchasing practice leads to outrageous quantities of single use plastics which, ending in land fill, eat up precious green space.

When Napoleon spoke of a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, doubtless, he had in mind a multitude of family grocers, butchers and bakers. Increasingly, this precious tapestry which once furnished flourishing high streets has been replaced by monolithic ‘megamarts’. Many of these are located on the fringes of settlements, so add nothing to the footfall vital to town centre viability.

Thankfully, the fightback has begun. Leading a group of MPs to lobby the Competition and Markets Authority, I fought to successfully stop the proposed merger between Asda and Sainsbury’s, preventing a further contraction in competition.

Similarly, I have campaigned vigorously for all public sector procurement to be purchased from British producers – a step which would ensure high-quality goods whilst sustaining national food security.

Most importantly of all, during my time as a Minister, I was able to contribute to the introduction of a Groceries Code Adjudicator – designed to protect the interests of farmers and growers. Speaking last week in the House of Commons, I welcomed the new Agriculture Bill’s provisions, enabling the Government to make deliberate and meaningful interventions in the market to prevent exploitation, monitor compliance and investigate wrongdoing.

Nevertheless, there is more to do! A meaningful extension of the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s role or the creation of an independent regulator that would have power to effectively enforce a compulsory code of fair dealing along the length of the food chain, with new powers to hold those responsible for poor practice to account, would ensure a much-needed shift in power away from supermarkets towards those whose skill and labour feeds the nation.

Sir John Hayes is MP for South Holland and The Deepings.

Originally published in Spalding Today