John Hayes should be a well-known name. As Shadow agricultural spokesman he is the man who opens the batting in the House of Commons when the Conservatives take issue with Margaret Beckett’s DEFRA team.
However, as far as UK Grocery plc is concerned, it has, until recently, been a question of “John Who?” rather than “John Hayes”.
But after his appointment in July last year, the genial member for the rural Lincolnshire constituency of South Holland and The Deepings has spent the summer at countless agricultural shows, listening patiently to the woes of those on the ground.
Hayes’ tour to acquaint himself with all matters food and farming, as some frustrated county show officials will quickly tell you, is more than some DEFRA ministers have done.
It is beginning to win admirers - some top names in the industry compare him to former agriculture minister Nick Brown and the whispered word in the Labour ranks is that he is a “bloke to keep an eye on”.
But is the man who entered Parliament in 1997 after 12 years as a Nottinghamshire county councillor and director of a successful computer company really a friend to the food and farming industry? Talking to me shortly before taking part in a Commons debate about the merits or otherwise of GM food, his reputation as a good listener seems well-founded. He makes it clear that he is neither pro nor anti on the vexed genetic modification issue. “I want a legitimate, open and honest debate based upon good scientific analysis,” he says. “But I do not believe that we have got it yet.”
However, he makes it equally clear that his allegiance is firmly with the suppliers rather than the retailers. Hinting that the Westminster microscopes would be just as focused on food retailing under a Conservative government, he says: “We must rebalance the food chain.
“At the moment it is weighted against the primary producer. When you compare farmgate prices with those in the shops it is clear that the proportion of the price of food that goes to the primary producer is not adequate.
“Unfortunately, power has been concentrated into the hands of a small number of retailers and we need to do something about it. This also has the effect of lengthening the food chain. So any responsible government has to look seriously at that situation.
“However, I am not suggesting that changes can be made overnight or that the supermarkets are entirely a force for ill. But even the most enthusiastic advocate of supermarkets would accept that there are real problems in terms of the relationships between producers, retailers and consumers, and we need to address them.”
Hayes talks enthusiastically about the challenge of “reuniting food’s production with its consumption.” Given that the DTI’s much-vaunted code of trading practice for the top four supermarket chains and their suppliers has been a fiasco what would be the Conservatives’ answer?
Hayes responds without hesitation: “One would want to do these things on a voluntary basis and to sit down with all parties and look for a way through.
“If the code is not working it should be reviewed. It would not be good enough for me, if I was the minister, to pay lip service.”
At pains to stress that the Conservatives would not look for an antagonistic relationship with the trade, he continues: “It should be all about partnerships with government, the agri-food industries and the retailers.”
Yet in a side swipe at the government on the issue of trading practices, he adds: “There is an unwillingness to face up to tough realities. These are contentious issues, but they are not insoluble given goodwill from all parties. But it will mean tough decisions.”
He continues: “I start from the belief that there can be no viable countryside without viable agriculture. So, given that perspective, I am looking to ensure that farmers get a fair deal.
“But I am not suggesting that the food chain should be rebalanced in the direction where farmers get the lion’s share of everything.
“That would put unfair and unreasonable pressures on retailers. I believe that a fair deal for everyone means taking seriously the issues of an ever lengthening food chain.”
Conceding that the shrinking number of smaller, village stores was a concern to his party, Hayes admitted that he did not shop at supermarkets, preferring instead to support a “very good network of small shops” near his Lincolnshire home. “These stores are the hub of village and town life and need to be supported for reasons beyond the purely material issue of what they sell.
“The government is letting down small shops, letting down small abattoirs and letting down primary producers, and that’s not good enough.”
Hayes believes that the responsibility to ensure that food is made to the highest quality standards and is safe and wholesome has never been more vital.
“UK producers and growers are unequalled in the world. But, I suspect that one of the effects of an emphasis on convenience above, in my judgement, quality, has been a declining appreciation of food. So we must give consumers a better understanding of food, its origins, its quality and its preparation.
“And ‘buying local’ is one of the best ways of appreciating those features. When I buy bread from a local baker, I know where it came from, who made it and how it was made.
“You can put in place all kinds of complex, nationwide international traceability regimes, but the best form of traceability is to make the food chain much more local.”