Tomorrow the Lords will have its first chance to debate the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. This regulation of supermarket power over their suppliers is welcome and was first proposed by the last Labour government.
It is also welcome as a measure that may benefit those in rural and semi-rural areas. Agriculture and food processing is worth over £80bn to the UK economy and is our largest manufacturing sector. 3.6m people are employed in food production. To make competition in that market function more fair is good for growth and for jobs in the sector.
I can grumble that it has taken the government two years to bring this forward when they have had MPs scratching around with little to do for the past six months. I can also observe with amusement, BIS ministers talking up a regulatory bill as pro-growth. But the more significant question is whether they are doing anything else to stimulate growth and make life easier for those of us in rural and semi-rural Britain.
By now it is no surprise that there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech.
A parliamentary session set to be dominated by Lords reform is irrelevant to the needs of the real world. Under the radar, we will be busy scrutinising the orders that follow from the laws passed in the last session. These will be the detail of the marketisation of the NHS, the slashing of welfare payments to the disabled, and a range of other corrosive measures to universal state funded provision. These will hit sparsely populated areas hardest where notions of choice and contestability are particularly meaningless. And, ironically, at the same time it seems inevitable that the Rural Advocate will be abolished, and with it the safeguard of an independent body looking at the impact of government policy on rural areas.
Last week’s joint report by the Chartered Institute for Housing, the National Housing Federation (NHF) and Shelter pointed to the failure of government to deliver on affordable housing. Predictably, a market-based approach is failing in an environment where lending is low. The planning reforms give more power to the nimby and look set to make it even harder to meet the huge crisis in affordable housing in rural Britain, where low land values will always need market interventions by government at some level.
The solution is obvious to the authors of last week’s report – invest public money in building homes. As David Orr, Chief Executive of the NHF, said: “Building new homes will help fix our broken housing market and, with rising unemployment and living costs, spur economic growth by creating jobs and supporting small businesses. It’s a win/win for the taxpayer and for the millions stuck on waiting lists.”
This chimes well with the first of Labour’s five point plan for jobs and growth: a £2bn tax on bank bonuses to fund a real jobs guarantee for all young people out of work for a year and build 25,000 more affordable homes.
These are the issues that matter in rural and semi-rural areas. How to get a secure job that pays enough to make the rent or the mortgage affordable alongside rising food and fuel costs. That is what we should campaign on, where Labour has the right policies and where the coalition parties are failing.
And in recent weeks we have proven that such campaigning works. Whilst the northern cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Sheffield are now no-go areas for the Tories, Labour have made gains even in the Prime Minister’s own backyard, in Chipping Norton and Witney.
Labour in Parliament will do what we can to improve legislation to help rural Britain, but the real job is out there on the doorstep.
Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords.