ULSTER Unionist agriculture spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson MLA has welcomed written assurances from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills that the government are committed to the Groceries Code Adjudicator being “up and running by mid-2013”.
Last month the Upper Bann MLA wrote to the government department in Westminster responsible for steering the Bill through Parliament.
Referring to the recently received response to her letter Mrs Dobson said: “I very much welcome the fact that government agree with my view that there is a very real urgency in our local agricultural community that a powerful, independent adjudicator is needed to ensure fair pricing.
“Any mechanism which can bring fair pricing and stability to the industry is to be welcomed, but it must have the necessary powers to ensure that it does not just exist in name alone.
“The adjudicator will potentially benefit some 311,000 farms and must ensure that supermarkets treat all their suppliers, including local farmers, both fairly and lawfully. If this is not the case an adjudicator, with the necessary powers, must be able to step in on the side of the farmers.
“The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State has informed me that once in operation the Adjudicator will be able to ‘receive evidence from any source, including but not limited to direct and indirect suppliers, trade associations, charities, whistle-blowers and information from the public domain.’ This wide list of sources is to be welcomed, however everyone must have confidence that the adjudicator has the authority to act, and act decisively.
“The adjudicator will also have a range of sanctions which it can bring to bear on retailers who are found to be in breach of the law and thus treating farmers and suppliers unfairly. They can ‘name and shame’ retailers by requiring them to publish information about their code breaches, and following considerable lobbying, resulting in a late amendment to the Bill, will now have the power to impose financial penalties upon retailers.
“Since 2007 the Ulster Unionist Party have been pressing for the implementation of legislation to create an ombudsman which could ensure fair practice within the industry and work towards increased profitability and sustainability for producers, processors and retailers alike.
“However, at an Agriculture and Rural Development Committee meeting in November I was told by Iain Mansfield, a BIS assistant director, that they planned for the adjudicator to be a ‘light touch organisation’ with between six and 10 staff. This fell far short of what farmers need for confidence and fairer prices to return.
“As we move closer to the delivery of this legislation I again urge the coalition government to treat this matter with the urgency it deserves and to ensure that the adjudicator is adequately resourced and staffed to cope with all the issues which are brought to its attention.”