Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Conservatives pledge supermarket food watchdog

Fruit and veg stall (Image: BBC)
Both parties say food diversity must be protected

The Conservatives have pledged to introduce an ombudsman to help settle rows between farmers and supermarkets.

Frontbencher Nick Herbert accused the government of "dithering" on the issue of an ombudsman - which was recommended by the Competition Commission.

He said a Tory government would create one to "curb abuses of power which undermine our farmers".

The government said it was looking at how best to enforce a new code of practice to govern the relationship.

Both the Conservatives and the government have been outlining their plans for British agriculture at the Oxford Farming Conference.

'Let down'

Shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert called for a "new age of agriculture" where farming was important in responding to a rising population and climate change.

He accused the government of "letting down British farmers" and criticised it for having failed to set up an ombudsman to govern disputes between retailers and suppliers.

While the government dithers the Conservatives are clear: we will introduce an ombudsman to curb abuses of power
Nick Herbert
Shadow environment secretary

He said a voluntary code of practice governing the relationship was not "worth the paper it is written on" unless it was properly enforced.

"It is not enough to talk loosely about a fair market or the need for better labelling," he said.

"We need action, with a supermarket ombudsman and legislation to enforce honest labelling if the retailers won't act."

He told the BBC an ombudsman could put a stop to practices like "retrospective discounting", where supermarkets go back to farmers and say they want to drive down prices which have already been agreed.

Not dominant

Following a long-running inquiry, the Competition Commission concluded in April 2008 that the supermarket industry was operating in the public interest and leading retailers such as Tesco were not overly dominant.

But they called for an ombudsman to resolve disputes and ensure retailers did not exploit relationships with suppliers to push through unfair or retrospective contractual agreements.

Let's go back to rationing - people were less glib about wasting food when they didn't have any!
Margaret Woodward, London

Mr Herbert said supermarkets had got "too much power" which could mean smaller farms were damaged and did not invest, which could drive up prices in the long term.

He said: "While the government dithers the Conservatives are clear: we will introduce an ombudsman to curb abuses of power which undermine our farmers and act against the long-term interest of consumers."

For the government, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told the BBC Radio's 4 Today programme: "We are looking at the Competition Commission's recommendations. It is a very important report that they have produced.

"We have already agreed there is going to be a new code of practice to govern these kind of relationships, which will come in next month, and we are considering how best we can enforce that."

'Harm customers'

National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall said: "While we await further details of the Conservatives' proposal with interest, we would look forward to working with any government that sees the creation of a grocery market ombudsman as a priority in delivering the Competition Commission's recommendations in full."

But Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, said: "This will harm customers. The last thing they need is a new multi-million pound bureaucracy - unnecessarily piling on costs and pushing up shop prices."

He said few farmers dealt directly with retailers and multi-national food businesses who supplied supermarkets were "perfectly able to stand up for themselves".

"Where's the evidence to support claims that retailers are unfairly putting the squeeze on their suppliers?" he said - adding the "big four" supermarkets already signed up to a supplier code overseen by the Office of Fair Trading.

But Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Tim Farron said the government had "colluded in the dominance of the supermarkets" by not introducing an independent regulator.

"Farmers will only get a fair deal if a new regulator is given the teeth to enforce a strict, legally binding code governing the relationship between supermarkets, suppliers, and pricing," he said.

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