Fair play on the agenda

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Seven years have slipped past since a farmers’meeting in Ayrshire suggested that one method of curbing the “occasional excesses” of the major retailers would be the appointment of an independent ombudsman to ensure fair play.

Now, in little more than two weeks time, that vision will become a reality, albeit under the title of adjudicator rather than ombudsman.

To mark this event, the UK parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson, yesterday visited a farm at Crawfordjohn near Biggar where she stressed the importance of the appointment of Christine Tacon, a former chief executive of Co-operative Farms, as the person who will be in the middle of any dispute between producers, processors and retailers.

Swinson said it was important to raise awareness of the appointment so that farmers and other suppliers knew they could raise concerns if they felt they were being treated unfairly.

She also stressed that, while there has been a groceries supply code of practice between suppliers and processors, as from 25 June there would also be enforcement of the code.

She said that Tacon had already been working on the sort of issues that might be raised so that she would be ready to start by the June deadline.

Swinson, whose visit to Tom French’s 200 acre stock farm with 70 suckler cows had been organised by NFU Scotland, said it was also important that anyone who felt they had a grievance could do so anonymously.

“I know there are concerns about potential repercussions to any complaint so we have made sure that approaches to the adjudicator can be confidential,” she said. “Any issues can come through organisations such as NFU Scotland or through trade bodies.”

NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller saw the union’s role as ensuring there was balance and fairness between retailers and those who supply them with food.

And he made it clear he was far from happy with the current situation. “In discussions that we have had in private with Scottish food processors, it is clear that to secure improvements there needs to be changes to the current culture that exists between retailers and suppliers,” he said.

“There are areas within our retail chain where progress has been marred by a short-term approach to relationships and that has affected investment and stability.”

He also saw the union’s role as gathering information and recording incidents across the industry to keep the adjudicator informed of how the operating environment between retailers and processors was developing and, hopefully, improving.

“However, where necessary, we will bring specific incidents of complaint to the adjudicator’s attention for further investigation,” he said