Its most radical conclusion – radical only in a Whitehall context – is that the left hand of government in this field should become better acquainted with the right hand. Let better co-ordination be the watchword, delivered by a cross-departmental committee – sorry – taskforce of civil servants.
Now, while there is obviously a lot of potential benefit for the industry in a coherent, integrated approach to policy, a Whitehall committee composed of people with little or no experience of what determines the success or failure of policy on the ground inspires little confidence.
This weakness in the proposed process is compounded by a flaw in the substance of the paper.The core issues of competition and profitability are dealt with all too briefly and superficially. We have the statement: “Competitive markets should provide fair prices for consumers and a fair deal through the supply chain”. But how will “fairness” be achieved? All the paper does is reiterate key recommendations of the most recent Competition Commission inquiry, some of which already look dated.
What we have now and, according to Alistair Darling, will be faced with for a long time to come are economic conditions that are anything but benign. Supermarkets are competing more ferociously than ever to cut prices. John Hutton has recognised this by refusing to rush ahead with implementing the Commission’s proposals. He knows suppliers are under as much pressure as supermarkets to cut costs and prices. Such a market will never deliver results that every party regards as “fair”, a subjective concept at the best of times.
A realistic strategy for food should be subtitled ‘Making the best of a bad job’. That doesn’t mean throwing out everything in the CC report. A voluntary “ombudsman” could well help restrain behaviour to which businesses on the brink may resort. A voluntary system, however, needs enough volunteers to make it work and in this case they have yet to emerge. As TS Eliot put it: “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” Now there’s a challenge worthy of a task force.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.