Thursday, 19 January 2023
Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage
Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this Bill. The general scheme was discussed in some detail at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. As such, the needs of the various organisations have been expressed and discussed. For too long, our farmers have had to navigate a market in which they have been expected to accept the prices they receive and the conditions to which they are subject. The purpose of the Bill is to address that and give producers of agricultural products the certainty they need that they are protected in the marketplace.
I welcome the changes made since the joint committee discussed the general scheme and that the Minister took on board some of the proposals made by Sinn Féin, the committee and the farming bodies. While some of these changes, such as larger fines and an increased time limit for prosecution for an offence, are welcome, much more needs to be done to make the regulator as effective as possible. I ask the Minister to give due consideration to these concerns as the Bill progresses, and I trust he will do so.
I will first address the issue of transparency and the power of the regulator to publish analysis of information about price and market data in the agriculture and food supply chain. The general scheme referred to "publicly available" data. It was pointed out to the Minister at the committee that this was far too limiting to be effective in any way in tackling cartel-like behaviour or similar abuses. The Minister has since dropped the term "publicly available". What is that meant to achieve? The words may have been dropped but the intent remains unchanged. There is no explicit reference to allowing the regulator a mechanism to require market data that is not publicly available. Therefore, any hopes that this will give agricultural producers the confidence that cartel-like behaviour is being pursued, as they would like to see, have been shelved. This is a fundamental issue, not a small matter, as the Minister has heard time and again. The stranglehold over our farmers needs to be addressed through a regulator that is effective. The Minister has seen intricate corporate structures that have been designed to conceal. If we cannot have a regulator with the basic powers of investigation, that is, the power to request information that may not be in the public domain, we are in a very sorry place and little will change for producers. I ask the Minister to comment on whether he supports the notion of the regulator being able to access information needed to clearly identify cartel-like behaviour. This Bill does not read like he does.
On the issue of the effectiveness of the regulator, another stumbling block is that the Bill does not span the full supply chain. In Sinn Féin’s submission to the consultation on the legislation, we stated that the regulator must be empowered to address issues across the supply chain, from producers through to consumers, with a particular emphasis on addressing the dominance of large processors and retailers. However, the Minister has chosen to confine the scope of the regulator to business-to-business relationships. For the regulator to be more effective and, ultimately, to be able to analyse market data precisely in the interests of producers and ensure they get a fair price, its remit must include business-to-consumer relationships.
Without this ability, coupled with being able to do little more than collect public market data, the office will not be taken seriously.
Let us talk about confidence. Consider the work of the office as it is right now: not a single case has been examined by it in almost two years. First, it is because the Minister transposed an EU directive with as little input as possible, so it was not tailored to Irish needs. The Minister will get no confidence from the agriculture sector with that kind of approach. Second, the Minister's vision of a regulator is what the farming organisations had feared. He is stopping short of giving it real powers that matter, powers that would benefit the producer, which would in turn benefit their communities and the customers who support them.
Another factor is trust. Individuals or groups need to know that when they make a complaint to the regulator, they will be afforded the confidentiality they need. I note the Minister has made some effort to address this, but I believe he needs to look at this Bill again and make it more convincing. This has been pointed out to him, and I fail to understand why it has not been addressed.
I urge the Minister not to be rigid in his approach to the Bill as it makes its way through the Oireachtas. It has great potential, but only if it is designed to address the key obstacles the sector unfortunately encounters all too frequently.
There are other elements that need to be addressed. The Minister increased the board and the quorum, which was called for, but sectoral representation has not increased.
The wording of parts of this Bill are too vague. No detail is given on what constitutes "too long ago to justify investigation", for example. As I mentioned earlier, removing words rather than making changes will come back to bite the regulator and ultimately the Minister who has given it its terms of reference. A Bill like this cannot be left open to interpretation, especially regarding the regulator’s remit and power. We need specifics, real enforcement capabilities and a regulator that will inspire the faith and trust of the sector. We are not there yet.
While Sinn Féin will support this Bill, we will table amendments to various aspects that have been left unaddressed, are watered-down interpretations of recommendations from the committee or are too vague to inspire the confidence needed.