Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-387)

Wednesday 4 June 2003

Lord Whitty, and Mr Lindsay Harris

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 it".

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 initiative—which is a voluntary initiative of course in that context—from 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 favour—at least I think I understood you to say—of a voluntary scheme and you accepted that it might have to have statutory backing, is that correct?


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: Given—as we have agreed already—there 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 depends—

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.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 27 June 2003