It’s a funny word, ombudsman. Apparently it’s Old Swedish in origin, and Sweden established a Parliamentary Ombudsman as long ago as 1809.
Ours didn’t arrive until 1967, but we’ve taken to this Nordic import as keenly as we did to Abba, and now have nine UK Government-appointed ombudsmen covering everything from housing to telecoms.
Please don’t let us take it into double figures by inflicting one on grocers. Because the English word that springs most readily to mind in conjunction with that Swedish one is “useless”.
You can’t raise an issue with the Parliamentary Ombudsman unless you do it through an MP – even then nearly half the complaints are rejected without investigation. Those that make it through the obstacle course typically take 40 weeks to resolve.
The internet is riddled with criticism of the English Local Government Ombudsmen, mainly because all three of them are former council chief executives, suspected of sympathising with their former colleagues.
My brother’s pension fund was shrunk dramatically by awful financial advice and mismanagement, but he could only obtain redress in court; the Pensions Ombudsman was not empowered to resolve his complaint, and could award only derisory compensation.
What does the Competition Commission hope to accomplish by asking the Government to impose a grocery Ombudsman? The certain outcome will be more bureaucracy, frustration and cost.
The Government is always inclined to legislate for PR purposes in a way that puts a sticking plaster over perceived public concerns without fixing the underlying problem.
Take knife crime. What do they hope to achieve by making it a criminal offence to sell a knife or a razor blade to someone under 18? Any child can get a knife – the kitchen drawer being the obvious place to start. And God help them if they need to start shaving.
When I was young, penknives, a piece of string and a sixpence were standard issue for boys; I wonder how many Parliamentary hours would be devoted now to clamping down on my catapult.
Businessmen have to prioritise, but legislators don’t seem to know the word’s meaning. Spending money on ombudsmen and quangos apparently ticks all their boxes, while they skimp on luxuries like body armour for Afghanistan.
If a grocery ombudsman is created, they will be there to fix a problem that does not exist; and, if it did exist, an ombudsman would not fix it. All it will do is increase costs and ultimately put up consumer prices.
There have been many recent enquiries by the Competition Commission into grocer power, alleged abuse of suppliers, and general retail competitiveness.
It all cost retailers and taxpayers millions, but never found evidence of a problem. Yet the notion persists that the Government needs to curry favour with the public by putting in “safeguards” that will prove as effective as inflatable armbands on the Titanic.
All big companies – not just retailers – will often bully small suppliers. Big suppliers are equally likely to bully small traders. It is in the nature of negotiation, whatever the industry.
We are dealing with a simple fact of life which nothing is likely to change –
certainly not the appointment of an Ombudsman. The public interest will always be protected by this simple fact: retailers would kill each other for market share, and can only gain it by serving the public well.
➤ Malcolm Walker is chief executive of Iceland