Q. When do you start?
I started this week. It will be one day a week, for now. I’ll be working on guidance spelling out how I’m going to operate, how I want people to contact me, how we will conduct an investigation, the level of fines, so effectively I am starting straightaway on the things I can actually achieve. Once the legislation becomes law I will be working three days a week.
Q. Where will you be based?
It might be co-located with the Competition Commission in Holborn. I like that there are people I can call on to say: ‘What would you do in these circumstances?’ They have Hearing Rooms, which are like little courtrooms. It will be useful to have access to those.
Q. Why did you want this job?
Two reasons. Having left the Co-op I wanted to have a portfolio of jobs, so the part time nature of the job was attractive. Secondly, having spent my whole career in the food chain, most recently 12 years in the farming industry, I didn’t want to leave it. I was registered with a headhunter for another industry position and when I saw this one I thought it was perfect for me, but they didn’t contact me. So I phoned them and said ‘Why on earth haven’t you contacted me for this?’ and they said ‘Well, we were specifically asked not to get people that were too closely associated with the retailer or supplier side.’ So I said, ‘Which side am I?’ and they said ‘Oh, crikey’.
Q. Because you have been involved on both sides of the fence?
Exactly, I am somebody that has had a foot in both camps. I understand both sides of all the arguments and I also know the pressures both sides are under. I’ve worked at Mars, I’ve worked at Anchor, I’ve worked in farming. At the Co-op we grew the product and we packed potatoes, strawberries, broccoli and apples. Other potatoes we sourced from other farmers, so in fact, I have operated as supplier, middleman and retailer.
Work: Ran the Co-operative Group’s farming business, for 11 years. Chairs the BBC Rural Affairs Advisory Committee.
Awarded a CBE for services to agriculture in 2004.
Commercial director at Anchor Foods UK 1996-2000.
Marketing manager and production planner at Mars Confectionery 1985-1992.
Education: Wycombe Abbey School. MEng and MA Cambridge. MBA Cranfield.
Interests: Vintage cars. Rallied from Paris to Monaco in 1953 Morris Minor and owns a 1929 Austin 7.
Also a narrowboat owner.
Q. Did you leave Co-op for this?
No. I left the Co-op because I wanted to have a wider impact on the industry and I felt this was an opportunity for that. I said to someone before I had left, ‘I might even go for that GCA role.’
Q. Diplomacy is obviously a key skill for this role - what experience do you have of conflict resolution?
Any MD knows all about conflict resolution. It happens all the time. And there was a huge pressure within the Co-op to try and resolve conflict. It was no done deal that the Co-op farming business would supply its retailer business. We had to compete for orders - we almost had to be better. We could not be seen to have a privileged position because we were the in house business - at least that was the impression we were given from the buyers, that they were not going to treat us favourably. In some ways I felt we were treated harder.
Q. Did that offer an appreciation of the difficulties that growers face in dealing with the supermarkets?
Yes, because I have been there in an open environment where we are all sat around a table talking about our own objectives, issues and agendas. In fact, I was more exposed to it than a supplier called into a meeting with a buyer who is only prepared to deal with his side of the story. We were in the same business trying to put all the cards on the table.
Q. Supermarkets’ ill-treatment of suppliers is the stuff of legend. Will everyone get a clean slate?
It’s very simple really. My job is to make sure the GSCOP is adhered to. A breach is a breach. I can’t be pro either side because there either is a breach or there isn’t one.
Q. What service will the Adjudicator offer?
There are essentially two services we will offer. If a supplier thinks there has been a breach with a retailer they can go to the retailer’s compliance office and say there has been a breach. They will then investigate and if they can’t agree, they can come to me, and ask me to arbitrate. In that position we work with both sides, we take a view, and award compensation if necessary, and the retailer will take all of the costs. That’s a straight arbitration and everyone is known. In an investigation, it is more about widespread practice and that is when you have powers to demand evidence, impose fines and so on. But you could be looking at complaints from all sorts of areas about breaches between suppliers and retailers, and everyone has a right to anonymity. So you may need [your investigation] to be quite broad to protect those identities.
Q. Realistically, how can anonymity be retained?
In an arbitration situation, there is no intention to have anonymity because that is about this person saying ‘you have breached the code’. Investigations, which are about widespread practices, have the guarantee of anonymity. We might do between two and four investigations a year, and the key question will be is this above board or isn’t it? Retailers will always be coming up with new ideas and ways to get more money out of the chain. It’s their job to keep the cost down.
Q. So what steps will you take in the event of a breach?
If you find things wrong, the first step is to make recommendations of what to change immediately. Then you can investigate afterwards to make sure they have made those changes. It may well be a misinterpretation of the code or it may be a breach where they should have known they were in breach of the code. Then we can require them to publish a full page [apology] in the national press. Details are being finalised and will be published in my guidance. I actually think naming and shaming is a significant threat. No board of any retailer will be endorsing people breaking the code of practice. I am not saying it’s not going on, but it’s not being endorsed at board level.
Q. When do fines come in?
The final sanction is fines. They weren’t something I thought were necessary, but if you read the parliamentary debate and all the committee hearings it was really, really wanted. So it would have almost been against the parliamentary process not to have allowed it. But it’s not something I will use lightly. Also, interestingly, there is no compensation at the end of an investigation process, like there is after an arbitration. Those affected by an investigation then have to go to the courts to seek compensation.
Q. Do you think your role will empower suppliers?
No, I think the role is about ensuring things are done fairly. I don’t think it will empower them, rather [it’s ensuring] that things won’t happen to them unless they were in the contract. So it’s about providing security. Previously, suppliers may have been too frightened to challenge murky tactics by buyers. Now they can challenge them, and they can withhold their identity from the retailer while doing so.
Q. Can you ensure that suppliers receive a fair price?
No. The role does not mean you will get a fair price for your product. If you have agreed a price in your contract then all I can do is adjudicate whether that contract has been breached. [Suppliers] have to look after themselves [too]. I am not here to make sure they get a good price but to make sure their contracts have been enforced. The GSCOP says there must be a contract between the retailer and the supplier referring to the use of the code of practice. That has been law for two years, and the fact there is a contract is part of the GSCOP, which is enforced by the OFT. In that contract there must be reference to the suppliers code, which I am here to enforce, which says things like you can’t charge suppliers for buyers visits, for artwork, for consumer research, hospitality, etc.
Q. Is this unfair on supermarkets, adding cost at a time they least need it?
I think inevitably there is going to be a cost - they have to pay for my office if nothing else. But my ambition would be that increased trust engendered as a result [of our efforts] will lead to more efficient supply chains, so it will pay for itself. I couldn’t be more pleased if I end up having to be made redundant because there is no more work for me to do.
Q. The flipside, of course, is that your office becomes a magnet for even the most minor complaint. How will you ensure genuine concerns are investigated and your office isn’t bombarded by bleating suppliers?
I don’t have a duty to investigate every complaint. We will have to look at what comes in, categorise it and file it, and say, ‘We have had four of five complaints about this, it’s looking more serious.’ I expect there to be some trivial complaints. The trade associations can complain, but there is provision in the act that if [suppliers] are being a nuisance, making trivial complaints and becoming a burden, we can stop them being allowed to complain. Which is a nice threat as it prevents them from appearing to support their members by saying ‘We have complained about blah blah blah’. Our message to suppliers is: If you give us too much to do, we just won’t do it. We need to know about what is really going wrong and what is really needing to be looked at. And that is a powerful message. Having said that, I have a duty to arbitrate, I have got to do that. If someone has been to the retailer and hasn’t resolved the problem with their compliance officer, then I will arbitrate.
Q. Will there be an appeal process - and if so, how will it work?
Yes. If we have ruled that there has been a breach and that retailer should be named and shamed, a judicial review could examine my role, look at my guidance, what the code of practice is and what my reasons were. If I have made a technical mistake, they will identify it. In the case of a fine then it can go to a full appeal, which will focus on the wording of the code itself. So it’s a very different appeal process if it’s a fine. But we are talking about very large retailers. I can’t believe that such widespread practice can be endorsed at board level. If they aren’t checking what their buyers are doing then I think they are at risk of a fine. But they have all got compliance officers who need to be auditing their buyers. If they are not checking properly I can see how a fine would appear. I cannot imagine a board, anywhere, endorsing someone breaking the law. It’s going to be much more that they have asked the buyers to raise more money and have then turned a blind eye to how they are doing it.
Q. So. What’s been the reaction to your appointment?
I’ve had a few tweets, The NFU said they are delighted with the appointment. I’m getting inundated with tweets now. My follower count was 600 at the start of the week. It’s now 743 [on Thursday pm].
Q. Any messages from the supermarkets?
I’ve had one from the Co-op!
Q. Are you looking forward to going toe to toe with the supermarkets?
This is law. You just need to follow it. Be in control of what your people are doing. So yes, I am looking forward to it. I’m not worried about it at all. I hope I’ll be a success, I owe it to the industry. There is a reasonable confidence that I’m the right sort of person to be doing it. There is no point doing it if I wasn’t! I am doing this to make a difference. I will make a difference. I won’t give up, I will make it happen. When I talk to BIS they talk about when my powers come into effect and I think, I actually do have significant powers. So while I would like to do everything via the power of persuasion, the power to name and shame or fine offenders is there. And I’m not going to be a pushover.