Competition minister Gerry Sutcliffe has waded into the debate about the growing power of the major supermarkets and their impact on independent retailers in dramatic fashion.
He told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton: “All of us agree that something is wrong and something needs to be done.”
The minister also revealed that officials at the DTI had tried to prevent him speaking, but he said it was important to have an open debate about the issues surrounding food retailing.
“We have to be concerned about the decline of c-stores. But it’s not about bashing the big supermarkets. It’s not about either/or. It’s about consumers getting the best deal,” said the minister, whose constituency is in Bradford, home of Morrisons.
He added: “It’s consumers who, at the end of the day, decide what they want.”
He also stressed that he was not trying to undermine the work of the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission, pointing out the Competition Act 2002 was designed to take the politics out of competition decisions, and he was not going to break rules brought into being by his own government.
Nevertheless, the minister made it clear that he was keen to see the OFT change its stance, saying: “There is a new regime coming in this month at the OFT [when John Fingleton joins as chairman] and that may bring a different view about many of these issues.”
Sutcliffe also revealed that he had been meeting with his opposite numbers in the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative parties as part of his efforts to gain a consensus view of what needs to be done about the issues being raised, including complaints about the way in which increased supermarket buying power is affecting food and drink suppliers.
“Something is not right and we need to look at it,” he reiterated. “I am aware of the concerns and I will do my best to address them within our framework [of the OFT and the Competition Commission].”
The minister refused to be drawn on reports that he was considering instigating a new inquiry into the supermarket sector. But he did not rule it out, saying only: “It’s speculation and no decisions have been made.”
Sutcliffe also welcomed the All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group’s decision to launch an inquiry into the issues - dubbed High Street Britain 2015. The inquiry is expected to start taking oral evidence in a couple of weeks.
The minister’s surprise intervention at the event, which was organised by the ACS, comes as the OFT and the Competition Commission face mounting pressure to act.
Nick Goulding, chief executive of the Forum of Private Business, told a separate fringe event at the Labour Party Conference: “The government, the OFT and the DTI all have responsibility. It’s clear that something is going wrong for small businesses and suppliers.”
Julian Hunt