Exclusive: Grocery watchdog's fury at lack of powers

Emails seen by The Independent show the GCA was deeply frustrated at not being kept informed

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The Independent Online

Officials at the watchdog set up by the Government to oversee the supermarket industry spent at least a year battling with Whitehall to get powers to impose fines on grocers for misconduct.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) office, headed by Christine Tacon, was set up two years ago, but was only given the power to fine 1 per cent of UK revenues earlier this year, despite repeated promises from ministers that legislation would be passed.

Emails seen by The Independent, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show the GCA was deeply frustrated at not being kept informed and being fobbed off with excuses for the delay.

One furious email from the GCA to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), dated 3 April 2014, said: “I asked a few weeks ago for an update on progress on the penalties order but didn’t get a response. I appreciate that you’re really busy but it would be really helpful to have an update on when the draft order may be published. We have now heard from another source close to an MP that it won’t be laid before Easter. This was a surprise and disappointment.

“In order to manage our stakeholders and look as if we know what is happening can you let me know what the plans are. We are being asked on a daily basis now, given that is been known that we wrote to the SoS [Secretary of State] before Christmas. Unhelpfully, a key assumption is that the SoS has rejected Christine’s proposal and that is the reason for the delay. So some reassurance would be great.”

The government department hit back, claiming: “The order hasn’t progressed as quickly as either we or you would have wanted, due to pressure of other work in the team… Our intention is that the order [to allow fining powers] will be made before the summer recess.”

When the recess came and went, a parliamentary question was raised by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, who asked when the fines would be implemented. He received a response from Baroness Neville-Rolfe, a former Tesco executive who remains in the new Government’s BIS department. She said: “The Government intends to bring legislation before Parliament this autumn.” However, it was still not implemented, and the GCA was only informed on the day it was due to be laid out that it would not go ahead.

The correspondence shows a deep divide between the GCA and the Government, with sources suggesting the problems lay between the BIS department, then run by the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, and the Tory-controlled Treasury.

However, many of the same officials, along with Baroness Neville-Rolfe, remain in the Government, while the GCA continues its investigation into wrongdoing at her previous employer, Tesco.

The BIS department declined to comment and the GCA could not be reached for comment.