Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-387)
Wednesday 4 June 2003
Lord Whitty, and Mr
Q380 Chairman: Your
small chaps in the white van, the proverbial minibus, who were
not on the scheme at all could still operate, could they not,
on a sort of cowboy basis?
Lord Whitty: In
terms of the quality control mechanism, they would escape that.
What they would not escape is if then they want to sell their
labour to a farmer and the farmer asks them "Are you an accredited
supplier of labour" and they say "no", the farmer's
organisations would look much more suspiciously at them were they
not that. They would suffer, also, if the supermarket asked the
processor "Where did you get your peas from and who supplied
the labour to pick those peas and was it on this list" and
the answer is no and the supermarket says "Well, maybe we
will take it this time but next time we are not going to take
Q381 Chairman: That
is a very interesting point because I understand that when the
Ethical Trading Initiatives Working Group met with ministers in
March of this year the question of whether supermarkets would
agree to buy only from suppliers who were registered came up and
I understand there were issues relating to competition law which
were put forward as to what the Government said it would need
to provide legal advice on what were the competition law implications
of supermarkets agreeing to buy only from suppliers who were taking
part in a registration and licensing scheme. Is that problem being
sorted or is there still a problem in that regard?
Lord Whitty: We
have sought legal advice from those who advise the competition
authorities and certainly their initial view is there is nothing
to stop this initiativewhich is a voluntary initiative
of course in that contextfrom a competition law perspective.
The law would only bite if the effects of all that were detrimental
to the supply of products, not the quality of those products.
It would be a form of quality control which the supermarkets are
paid to do.
Q382 Chairman: You
do not fear there would be a layer of bureaucratisation put into
the food chain at almost every level and that the technologies
which deliver British food to the table more efficiently than
anywhere else would be compromised by this constant process of
governmental monitoring of the origins of the labour?
Lord Whitty: I
think you have the wrong concept of how this would operate. We
are talking about a code of practice to which the people would
sign up which may or may not have to have some statutory backing.
It would not be a system where every consignment of peas would
need to be checked, it would be one which the food chain itself
would enforce in the same way that it enforces all sorts of quality
control with the desirable results you refer to. I do not see
this as a bureaucratic nightmare at all, it requires somebody
to administer the list and it requires some communication of that
list but it does not require a huge new inspectorate.
Q383 Chairman: You
have just said that you are personally in favourat least
I think I understood you to sayof a voluntary scheme and
you accepted that it might have to have statutory backing, is
Lord Whitty: Yes.
The voluntary scheme would work. I am in favour of a voluntary
scheme. I have some scepticism as to whether a formal voluntary
scheme would work.
Q384 Chairman: Givenas
we have agreed alreadythere is no minister in charge of
this and we have been told by other witnesses from Mr Harris's
Committee that the whole question of whether or not there should
be a statutory scheme is still open to debate and there is quite
a lot of scepticism, it is probably fair to say that the evidence
from Government departments leans more towards the negative than
towards the positive, I think, to be fair, because of problems
of definition and that sort of thing. Do you think your own restrained
enthusiasm for it is shared or do you think there is still an
argument to be had within Government? When would that decision
be likely to be taken?
Lord Whitty: We
would have to see the results of our initiative, of looking at
the code of practice dimension, and make a realistic assessment
as to whether the voluntary approach which had been examined in
the process could work. If the answer to that is no then I would
have to use my limited powers of persuasion on my colleagues to
modify any objection they might instinctively have to this form
of regulation. As with everything else, we will not get law on
the statute book unless we agree it across Whitehall. Certainly
from DEFRA's perspective, if a voluntary initiative looks unlikely
to succeed we would start looking at the possibility of a statutory
initiative and discuss that with colleagues.
Q385 Chairman: And
then the long queue to get it into a programme?
Lord Whitty: It
Q386 Chairman: What
is around at the time.
Lord Whitty: what
is around at the time and how much you can do by RRO (Regulatory
Reform Order or whatever, but yes.
Q387 Chairman: Lord
Whitty, thank you very much indeed. We see you relatively often
but we are always pleased to see you. Thank you very much for
your evidence. If there is anything you wish you had said which
you have not then, please, let us know. If there is anything you
said you wish you had not, it is a bit late. We look forward to
seeing you next time.
Lord Whitty: Thank
you very much, Chairman.