Report on the Grocery Sector by the Joint Agriculture and Food Committee

Wednesday, 20th November 2013

I welcome the Minister of State. This report is outside my work area, so it is great we can have this debate and that I can get an opportunity to hear my colleagues who have been able to provide such expertise in the drafting of the report. I thank my colleagues on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, namely, Senators Comiskey, Mooney, Mary Ann O’Brien, Ó Domhnaill, O’Keeffe and O’Neill. I join in the thanks and commendations to Deputy Andrew Doyle who chairs that committee and who brought all members together. Reading the transcripts of the debates and the report, the committee produced a final report endorsed by all.

I am part of a group which includes Senator Mary Ann O’Brien who has yet again proved her expertise in her area and demonstrated that balanced approach. I am speaking only as a consumer but we are able to have the full package as others are able to speak about different areas.

I would like to speak about a few issues concerning the recommendations contained in the report. Some of the issues were contained a Private Members’ Bill entitled the Food (Fair Trade and Information) Bill 2009, but this report goes further than that. We have heard in this debate about the importance of the food sector to the economy from the perspective of the number of people employed in the industry and our ability to continue to grow exports, which is critical now but also in the years ahead. We want to ensure we continue to have that growth but we need to look at the recommendations in the report.

It is fair to say this report seeks to address one of the main issues in the sector which is the dominance of some of the large retailers in the grocery sector. This is the elephant in the room that we are discussing today. It is an issue we need to tackle head on. There are many positives but we also need to look at some of the negative consequences and find the way forward.

I appreciate and understand that perhaps we have to look to the EU and at an all-island approach, but will we be followers or will we take the initiative and a leadership role and say what we need to do, how we protect the consumer and the producers and that what lands on our tables is good quality food? Everybody wants to achieve that, so how do we do it?

I refer to the example Senator Mary Ann O’Brien gave us about the disparity in milk in prices. I have no doubt that if we were to drill down, we would find many other examples. That raises the question as to who is winning here. It is not the producers or the consumers. There needs to be a way where, to an extent, everybody can win and where nobody has the monopoly of winning the game every time.

I very much welcome the committee’s recommendation to amalgamate, under the consumer and competition Bill, the Competition Authority and the National Consumer Agency, which has been mooted for some time. I am glad that will come to fruition because to me, as an outsider, it makes sense. The directors of the authority and the agency have been planning for this and I am glad this process can get under way formally when the legislation is enacted. That move will benefit the consumer in the long term.

Many Members spoke about profits and gave different perspectives, which is very healthy. Sometimes there is deliberate confusion in terms of people having to give their margins. Giving the profits of a company does not give one the individual price sensitivity of a margin. We need to be very careful. We expect small companies and retailers to disclose their profits and yet we are saying that large multiples can, in effect, hide them. In the UK, some major companies which have not paid their tax have been exposed. I want to know how we can be assured that Ireland gets is fair slice of the tax take for these companies. Do we connect up with the UK, Belgium and France to check if we are getting our fair share or do we rely on the companies to tell us what they are getting with no checks and balances? We have to go further on that issue and I do not accept the lobby from the large multiples on it.

We could have a big discussion on alcohol. I do not agree with Senator Barrett. We need to get serious. There is legislation in place which needs to be commenced on separating the sale of alcohol from other grocery goods. At the very least, we should commence that. We do not have to wait to discuss it or draft it.