christine tacon

Christine Tacon last month agreed a new three-year term with a one-year break clause

The government has begun making plans for a post-Christine Tacon Groceries Code Adjudicator’s office, which it promised would clamp down on supermarkets unless more is done to remove the continuing “climate of fear” among suppliers.

Today the government finally published a statutory review of the role of the Adjudicator, four years after Tacon took up the job.

The review, which dates back to October last year, found there had been an improvement in the behaviour of supermarkets. It also heaped praise on Tacon’s flexible approach to the role, describing her as “an exemplary modern regulator”.

However, amid increased speculation that Tacon may not stay in the role for the long term, the government said it was working with her to “establish a robust governance and assurance framework for the long term that will endure beyond the tenure of the current Adjudicator”. Tacon last month agreed a new three-year term with a one-year break clause that could be activated next year,

Small business minister Margot James, who spearheaded the review, said she was determined to stamp out continued supermarket practices that “had no place in an economy that works for all”.

The review found “ongoing concern that some suppliers are reluctant to bring issues to the adjudicator and that there is still a climate of fear preventing reporting of retailers’ abuses of power”.

One trade association responding to the review said: “The fact that arbitration entails the waiving of anonymity by suppliers prevents these suppliers from using it as a tool.”

A representative of primary producers added: “The sense of fear within our membership to publicly highlight issues still remains across all sectors. The fear centres on the potential for members to be delisted, damage their relationship or lose volume from their retail customers if they are seen to have reported the issue to the GCA”.

The review concluded: “Similar themes relating to the climate of fear were mentioned in several further responses. Therefore, it is clear that this remains a real, live issue that needs to continue to be on the radar of the GCA, as reflected in one respondent’s statement that ‘Going forward, the climate of fear amongst suppliers must be tackled if the GCA is to continue to be able to investigate unfair trading practices’.”

The government also attacked trade associations for not doing more to offer training in the code. It suggested large retailers considered encouraging and supporting their suppliers with training, even if it was through a third party.

The review raised additional questions over the resources given to the GCA, with some questioning why the Adjudicator was only employed for three days a week.

However, the government dismissed such criticism.

“The GCA’s office is small but runs a simple and effective model for enforcement,” it said. “The conclusion of this review is that the GCA is proving effective and that the current model for the GCA office is sufficient.

The government would it make it clear to large retailers that adverse commercial consequences in response to a supplier reporting a potential breach of the code were “totally unacceptable”.

James added: “This review highlights the excellent work of the Groceries Code Adjudicator over the past three years. It is vital that government and the GCA continue working together to prevent unfair treatment of smaller suppliers.

“I want to thank Christine for her achievements in levelling the playing field and ensuring fair treatment of suppliers and retailers alike.”