The government has rejected calls for an independent ombudsman to oversee the supermarket code of practice.
But Competition and Consumers minister Gerry Sutcliffe insisted he intended to make the code effective and wanted “hard evidence” of how supermarkets abused it.
The code was introduced two years ago in a bid to prevent the four biggest supermarkets abusing their power over suppliers, but a report by the OFT last month said no complaints had been made under the system because of “a climate of apprehension among suppliers”.
Now the minister has invited MPs to supply him, in confidence, with details of how the code is being broken.
The request came in a special Commons debate called by Lib Dem MP Andrew George, who said the OFT reported up to 85% of suppliers believed the code had failed to make any change in supermarket behaviour.
In addition, 73% admitted a fear of complaining and George said evidence he had obtained could not be made public as there was a danger that informants could be identified and lose their contracts.
“But you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to identify problems in the way the market
is working,” he added. Delaying payments and charging suppliers for packaging above costs were two of the ways the MP believed supermarkets abused the system.
And he alleged there had also been “threatening behaviour”.
George said there was no need for further legislation but the existing laws needed to work. He suggested ministers could set up an ombudsman or food trade inspector with the OFT to achieve a number of critical improvements.
But Sutcliffe said he could not see what powers an ombudsman would have that the OFT did not already possess.
He accepted there was widespread concern that the code of practice was not working but said there was no hard evidence that it had been breached.
It was, he recognised, difficult for suppliers to come forward if they feared reprisals.
Bill Doult