Previous Section Index Home Page

Alistair Burt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, in what might be the sting in the tail of this crafted speech, for illustrating what my constituents are doing. In that way we come full circle, to some of the problems that they are facing and how, despite the Government's intentions, as set out in their paper, their actions do not always ensure the ends that they seek. They say one
21 Jan 2010 : Column 475
thing, but are doing things that make life more difficult for those whom they want to encourage. My hon. Friend has picked out a perfect example of that. I commend the Ibbett family and Andrew Needham at Biogen for all they are doing to pioneer renewable energy in that way.

Before we get on to vegetable waste, however, we start with the vegetables themselves. Bedfordshire, an area noted for the growing of vegetables, also has people who recognise that, with different shopping and working habits, we need to retail in a different way. My family and I get our vegetables every week in a veg box from Garden Friends. There is no unnecessary packing, and we get vegetables that are locally produced, where possible, and seasonal. The whole family get a chance to eat slightly different things and cook different things according to season, using locally sourced products. Garden Friends has now expanded, with a farm shop based in Roxton in my constituency. I commend Val and Mark for the work they are doing, but they are not the only ones to have pioneered that form of retailing, recognising the changing culture. They too are working hard to fulfil the Government's objective of providing healthy food in a sustainable manner.

Right at the other end of the scale from Jordans, a national company with a strong export record, and Garden Friends, which operates on a small scale, is Unilever, the multinational. Unilever's main food science research establishment is based at Colworth park in north Bedfordshire. It is a remarkable establishment, containing the most northerly tea plantation in the world-Lipton is the brand-and looking after such wonderful things as ice cream and so on. In the recent restructuring of Unilever, I was delighted that Colworth park remained in what is now a handful of world renowned research establishments. The work done at Colworth park fulfils the Government's aim in key point six of their strategy, which talks about

Unilever is looking at how to take the bad fats out of food-the trans fats and saturated fats-and ensure that only the good fats remain, as well as how to present food in a healthier manner and how to take existing brands and make them better. Unilever also looks at new products to ensure that they are safe.

Colworth park is developing: it is becoming a science park. I am delighted to say that the Institute of Food Research will have a presence there from next year. That fits in with Bedfordshire's overall strategy to be part of what we call the Oxford-Cambridge arc and-to use another geometric symbol-part of the golden triangle, of Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial college London, where science and technology is based. Unilever's presence is therefore key; but again, in just one constituency, we have research and development, and the multinational, the local, the farmers and the growers. Despite the difficulties of food and all the problems over the years, we can see in just one constituency the people, the skills and the talent needed to combat them.

There is one final link in the chain: us eating the food. I pay tribute to the growing number of farm collectives that are being set up to market their produce. There is one in London called the Farm Collective, a deli in
21 Jan 2010 : Column 476
Smithfield where this morning I had a really good bacon roll and a nice cup of coffee. Everything is British-sourced-the provenance is there to see, and we can trace it through. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) raised an eyebrow when I mentioned coffee. That point is tackled in a little note produced by the Farm Collective, which says:

I think that the Farm Collective can be allowed a little leeway on coffee. I know all that from having my bacon roll and coffee there this morning with my son Mat, who is working there for a few months, and I thought that I would put it on the record. I hope that I do not have to declare an interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, as that young man begins to make his way in the world. All those examples show what can be and is being done in our food industry at all levels to deliver not only the Government's objectives, but what the consumer is looking for.

Finally, let me return to my local NFU branch, which I met last week, because that is where the rubber meets the road. Despite everything that I have said about the positive attitude of farmers, what they want from the Government is to ensure that warm words are followed by action. To say that they are suspicious of the current Government is a bit of an understatement, as I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge. Farmers have been through a tough time, and after all that time they are not sure whether everything put forward in the strategy will be delivered. For example, there are conflicting messages. Farmers are being asked to produce more food, but the Government are still ambivalent about some of the pesticides and chemicals that can be used, and that worries them. We cannot take the science out of farming. Farmers need a clear lead on that issue. Why has it taken so long to get the supermarket ombudsman up and running? The issues between farmers and supermarkets predate the current Government-things have been exceptionally difficult-and they are worried that everything has taken so long.

Andrew George: One point that I did not have time to expand upon was about that very relationship. The proposal for a supermarket ombudsman deals only with the ultimate supplier and the supermarket. What is required under that proposal-I hope that the Minister will address this in his summing up-is something to ensure that issues can be investigated right through the supply chain, up to the farmer and the grower. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Alistair Burt: Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Part of the problem is that this process has had such a long gestation period, and we still do not know exactly how it will work. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was kind enough not to suggest that we had prompted the Government into action with our own announcement just a few days before they made theirs in Oxford. Perhaps they had not thought the matter through at that point. The details need to be worked through, and I am confident about the contribution that my hon. Friend will make to enabling those details to become a practical reality.

21 Jan 2010 : Column 477

Why has there been such a long delay on labelling? The problems with meat labelling raise serious issues for those who rear and produce food in this country. They have to abide by health regulations, and they face competition, but that is nothing new. It was not enough to hear a squeak from the Government just before Christmas to the effect that this matter was moving on to the agenda. It is no wonder that my friends in the local NFU are suspicious. They really want to see something delivered on this; they have been waiting too long.

Finally, when will the Government truly understand the problems associated with gold-plating directives? We hear all the talk on this. Indeed, I was questioned heavily by members of the NFU on my own party's position on this, because they hear the same talk. They want a Government who understand the damage that gold-plating and over-gilding the regulations can do. Open Europe has estimated that the cost of regulation has tripled for the farming industry since DEFRA was formed in 2001. That tells its own story.

I am grateful for the time that I have been allowed this afternoon. I hope that I have managed to illustrate what one typical rural constituency can do, right the way through the chain from the largest company to the smallest, from those who work on an international scale to the individual suppliers, from research to growing, and from retailing to consuming and to dealing with the waste remnants in an innovative fashion. People are looking for a Government who will understand what they are about and work to help them and deal with the conundrums that I have raised, to which they want real answers. I am confident that, in a short time, they will have a Government who will do just that job.

1.42 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I will try to be brief. I know that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) wants to speak, and I want to give him enough time to set out his stall as well.

I want to focus on the proposals for a supermarket ombudsman. I am afraid that the debate so far on this issue has been familiarly depressing. Debates in this place seem to follow the same old routine. First, an outside body makes a recommendation about something. In this case, it was the Competition Commission, but it can be Select Committees or other bodies set up by the Government. Whatever happens, we seem to take the view in this place that, whenever such a body produces a report, we all have to stand up and say, "Wasn't that a marvellous report? We can't think of anything bad to say about any of the recommendations, and everyone's done a wonderful job." We build up a cosy consensus in this place based on the fact that no criticism can ever be made of any report done by anybody about anything.

I do not share that view. Are we really saying that we are happy to give the Competition Commission a blank cheque, that we are going to agree with everything that it comes up with, and that it must be marvellous simply because the Competition Commission says so? That appears to be the nature of the debate that we have had on this matter so far. Everyone seems to have said, "This must be a good thing because the Competition Commission says so." Some of us have thoughts and experiences of our own, however. I am not sure how
21 Jan 2010 : Column 478
much experience of the supermarket industry other hon. Members have had. I am one of the few who has spent a number of years working in it, and I would like to use the short time available to expose a few of the myths that have grown up around this subject in the House.

I do not know whether it is a particularly British disease, but we seem to have a need to knock every successful industry in this country. We try to knock down any industry that reaches a certain size and level. We should be incredibly proud of our supermarket industry. It employs hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, it employs people in each hon. Member's constituency, although I am not entirely sure whether some have any great desire to see those people in work. Supermarkets also provide a very good service to tens of millions of customers each week.

Jim Fitzpatrick: There have been two intensive investigations involving examinations and consultations by the Competition Commission, and the Front-Bench teams of all three parties concluded that there was evidence to suggest that something was wrong and that we needed a code of practice. We introduced a code of practice, but it did not work very well, so we tried to strengthen it. We have now all concluded that there needs to be a means of enforcing it. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that he might perhaps not be right on this, and that there is another side to the argument?

Philip Davies: I do not doubt that there is another side to the argument; that is the side that I am trying to give. We have only heard one side so far. The Minister might believe that, because there is a cosy consensus between all the main parties, everyone is right. In my experience, however, such cosy consensus usually means that everyone is wrong. I do not know whether you will allow me the luxury of giving the House a catalogue of examples, Madam Deputy Speaker. It would include joining the exchange rate mechanism and setting up the Child Support Agency. I could go on, but I will not. Just because all those on the three Front Benches agree on something, it does not necessarily follow that it is right. I am grateful to the Minister for letting me put the other side of the argument.

The supermarket industry is incredibly successful. Why is this? Everyone is so concerned about it being too powerful, but how has it got to the state that it is in? It has done so because it does something that we should encourage all businesses to do: it offers the customers who voluntarily go through the supermarkets' doors-I am not aware of any that use a lasso to drag people in to shop against their will-a wide range of products that they want to buy at a price-

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): It has a big market share.

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak, if he calms down. If he does not, I might have to go on for too long, so that he does not get a chance. I urge him to calm himself down for a second.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May we have the debate conducted in an orderly manner?

21 Jan 2010 : Column 479

Philip Davies: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your support.

Mr. Pelling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Philip Davies: I will.

Mr. Pelling: Let us do this properly. Would it not be possible to argue that supermarkets go for a large market share and act in an oligopolistic manner, which might go against the interests of suppliers and, indeed, consumers?

Philip Davies: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, I will come to the details in a moment. I want to address those issues as well. At the moment, I am merely setting the scene.

Supermarkets sell the products that people want to buy at prices that they want to pay. That is why they have become so successful. No supermarket starts out as a huge multinational company. All businesses start out as small businesses, as did all the supermarkets. They became big businesses by looking after their customers and their employees and, to a large extent, by looking after their suppliers.

One element that seems to have been conveniently forgotten in this debate is that supermarkets sell products, and that those products come from suppliers. If the supermarkets did not look after their suppliers and build up a good relationship with them, they would end up with nothing but fresh air on their shelves. They would have no business without suppliers. In the real world of retail, things can go wrong. A supplier could have a problem, perhaps as a result of a health scare, or of foreign objects being found in their products. Supermarkets desperately need to have a good relationship with their suppliers at such times, so that they can go to another supplier and say, "We've got a problem at that factory. Can you increase overnight the amount you can supply to us, because we're in a bit of a pickle?" If supermarkets did not give a stuff about their suppliers, and if all they were interested in was screwing every single one of them into the ground as much as possible, they would never be able to rely on that kind of good will. Anyone here who thinks that supermarkets can not only survive but thrive without building up good, close relationships with their suppliers is completely misguided, and miles off the case. That is a ludicrous thought.

Mr. Martlew: I worked in the food industry for more than 20 years. If the hon. Gentleman is correct, why do we get copycat products-own-brand products-with very similar packaging to the branded goods appearing on the supermarket shelves beside the branded goods? If the supermarkets want to keep a good relationship with their suppliers, why do they try to copy the packaging of the branded goods?

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman may think that all of his constituents are stupid and cannot tell the difference between an own-brand product and a branded product. He seems to follow the theme of what this Labour Government think-that everybody is so stupid that the Government have to decide everything for them-but I actually have more faith in consumers. I think that my constituents, who I am not entirely sure are greatly
21 Jan 2010 : Column 480
different from the hon. Gentleman's, are perfectly able to decide whether they want to buy an own-brand product or a branded product, as they can tell the difference between one that says Tesco on it and one that says Kellogg.

Mr. Martlew: The hon. Gentleman's language about my constituents being stupid is offensive, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am used to him being offensive. If the supermarkets do not want to deceive, why do they do it?

Philip Davies: I was not saying that the hon. Gentleman's constituents are stupid; I was saying that he seems to think his constituents are stupid. I do not think they are, which is why I do not think that we need to intervene, as they are more than capable of distinguishing a packet that says Tesco on it from a packet that says Kellogg on it. The hon. Gentleman obviously does not think that they can.

Mr. Pelling rose-

Philip Davies: I am going to press on, as I want to allow the hon. Gentleman time to elaborate his views later.

I do not accept the premise that supermarket businesses are built on screwing suppliers into the ground and on not having a good relationship with their suppliers. To my mind, that would be nonsense.

I will say in passing that the idea that we need an ombudsman to improve innovation in the food industry is laughable. We have a hugely innovative industry, so the idea that the ombudsman is essential to promote innovation in the industry is absolutely and utterly ludicrous. The ombudsman is being set up, it seems, on the premise that we have big, horrible and nasty supermarkets screwing their suppliers into the ground on price. The only possible upshot of a successful ombudsman, for those people who want to set it up, is that supermarkets will pay more to their suppliers for their goods. The only consequence of that is that the price to the consumer will go up.

I would not mind this so much if we had an honest debate in this House. If people stood up and said, "I believe in a supermarket ombudsman; the likelihood is that it will put prices up by x per cent. but, overall, that will be beneficial to the country as a whole", that would be fine. I might disagree, but at least it would be an honest debate. Instead, we are offered something from cloud cuckoo land-I think Sir Alfred Sherman described that as politicians always offering "painless panaceas", and here we have our latest painless panacea. The painless panacea is this: we can have a supermarket ombudsman, which has the support of all three Front-Bench teams, who looks after suppliers, makes supermarkets pay more money to them, but, crucially, the upshot will be a lower price for the consumer. I do not think that many people would have to study that proposal for very long before they knew that that is patently and utterly ridiculous. If people want supermarkets to pay more to the suppliers, that is a perfectly legitimate point to argue, but at least have the honesty to accept that the only possible outcome is to put up prices to the consumer.

Next Section Index Home Page