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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 70 to 72, 11, 16, 26, 15, 28 to 32, and 38.

Mr. Griffiths: These are minor and tidying amendments. Government amendments Nos. 69, 70, 71 and 72 tighten the definition of "trading practices" in relation to the European economic area regulated markets, and bring it into line with the definition of practices in relation to recognised investment exchanges in the Financial Services Act 1986. Government amendments Nos. 11 and 15 tidy up a matter which was dealt with in Committee. Clause 50, which was inserted in Committee, enables the Secretary of State by order to provide for any provision of part I to apply in relation to land or vertical agreements, with such modifications as may be prescribed. Government amendments Nos. 16, 26, 28 to 32 and 38 are minor, and are part of the overhaul of the transitional provisions. I hope that the House will accept the amendments. Amendment agreed to. Amendments made: No. 70, in page 53, line 39, after '(a)', insert 'which'. No. 71, in page 53, line 41, leave out '(b)' and insert 'and which'. No. 72, in page 53, line 43, after '(c)', insert 'which'.--[Mr. Nigel Griffiths.]

9.45 pm

Mr. Redwood: I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 53, leave out lines 44 to 49.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 51, in page 54, line 37, leave out from beginning of line to end of line 6 on page 55.

Mr. Redwood: It was a pity that the Minister of State, in responding to my intervention in the previous debate, chose to make a crude and inaccurate political point during what was meant to be a civilised exchange to elicit information about whether The Times was in a dominant position under different definitions.

The Minister of State alleged that the Opposition are keen to water down the competition legislation, and that, by implication, we favour anti-competitive practices. One of the principal purposes of this amendment is to show that the contrary is true. As we argued in Committee, so we argue on the Floor of the House; we believe that, in several important respects, the Bill is sadly lacking. It does not have sufficient bite to deal with potential abuses of the marketplace by monopolies. Indeed, the Bill could be more accurately called the competition and protection of monopolies Bill, particularly if one looks at schedule 3 and the enormous loophole it contains. That is what we are trying to excise with our amendment.

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The House will know that I have declared two interests and my wife's interest in the Register of Members' Interests. The House should know that I am not furthering those interests by anything that I say or do in these debates.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths: The right hon. Gentleman must clarify the statement he made in Committee on 21 May. He said:


Mr. Redwood: That is quite right. We made it clear that we are against the Bill because we do not think that it fulfils what the Government say is a joint aim, which is to have a strong and fair competition policy in our country. We have said that we do not think that the Bill can fulfil the Government's aim of clarifying between European and British law and avoiding doublejeopardy. We do not think that it would sharpen the attack of the British competition authorities on those revenue-producing monopolies that are most undesirable.

I am conscious, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that at this relatively late hour you will want me to keep strictly in order. With the Under-Secretary's agreement, I shall deal with the words that we are seeking to excise from the schedule.

We wish to leave out paragraph 4 of schedule 3 on page 53. It might be for the convenience of the House, since not all hon. Members have the schedule before them, to remind the House of the words. It is headed:


It states:


    "Neither the Chapter I prohibition nor the Chapter II prohibition"--

the two effective prohibitions that the legislation is about--


    "applies to an undertaking entrusted with the operation of services of general economic interest or having the character of a revenue-producing monopoly in so far as the prohibition would obstruct the performance, in law or in fact, of the particular tasks assigned to that undertaking."

I accept that the last line and a half offers some limitation on what is otherwise a breathtakingly wide definition of exceptions. However, I think that it would be possible for clever lawyers operating for revenue monopolies or even companies with a dominant position who claim that they have a general economic interest that they are delivering through their services, to draw the attention of the courts to the big loophole in the legislation. Some will doubtless use it to good effect.

In Committee, we moved a specific amendment to try to improve competition in the water industry. The Opposition are strongly committed to the idea that water services could be improved, and that water prices could be lowered if proper competition was introduced into the industry. We had an interesting debate in Committee, and I was delighted that the Under-Secretary expressed some sympathy for the general thrust of my argument about the need for more competition in the industry.

It is well known that the Labour Government have been critical of the standards and practices of some in that industry, and of some companies in the industry. The Opposition are no friend of poor services or of

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anti-competitive practices. We would like to see rapid progress in the case of water. It is one very big example where we think that paragraph 4 of schedule 3 would make the Under-Secretary's task more difficult in the courts, and perhaps in persuading his colleagues in the Government that some action should be taken. Indeed, with the Bill before the House, this is the obvious time, and the Bill is the obvious vehicle, to make the water industry more competitive, but the Government seem to want to throw away that heaven-sent opportunity, and they voted against our amendment accordingly.

I urge the Under-Secretary, even at this late stage, to see the wisdom of removing the words that we seek to excise from the Bill, or tabling another amendment so that the words will not be as damaging as I fear they could be. We must think again.

Dr. Ladyman: How nice it is to be arguing with the right hon. Gentleman again, rather than with my hon. Friends. The right hon. Gentleman said that the last line and a half of paragraph 4 provide some limitation. If he means the words beginning "in so far as", they provide an absolute limitation on the schedule. Why does he not believe that?

Mr. Redwood: There is nothing absolute about those words. They provide limited circumstances for the competition authorities to counter-argue that a monopoly is going too far. They are limited, because the monopoly could always say that, if it were not allowed to continue with its price fixing or special agreement or deal, it could no longer fulfil the tasks assigned to it.

If a water company wanted to defend a particular agreement or pricing practice, it would argue that it could no longer supply clean water in the required quantities to all households. That would be a serious threat, and the court might believe the company, because it is the monopoly producer. It presumably has some credibility, and knows whether it can provide water on different bases. The court might judge that the company was right, and allow it to continue its anti-competitive practice.

How much better it would be if there were a market test for that practice. If another company could enter the market and provide a better service without such a restriction, it would be allowed to do so, and it would not be possible to argue through the courts in defence of the restrictive practice or the special agreement.

I was pleased, after my recent discussion of the subject in Committee, to discover that some leading companies in the water industry agree that more competition could be introduced, and that they might benefit because they are active and innovative. They believe that if there were more freedom in the market, they might be beneficiaries. That is a good sign that there would be an entirely positive response to more competition. In that case--I could think of many others--we should like the words in the amendment removed, or modified by the Government's statements, so that there is scope for introducing competition.

Before the House votes on whether to retain the words, we should also learn a little from the Government about what services they have it in mind to exempt under this wide-ranging paragraph. They must have had something in mind when they drafted it.

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In Committee, it was suggested that such words are found in the treaty, so they had to be found in the Bill, but I am sure that the Government have done a little more research and thinking than that. The Bill creates a British law for British markets, as we have often argued, so we need the Government to tell us what would be permissible by way of a general economic interest service or a revenue-producing monopoly to exempt companies from the otherwise sensible provisions of the Bill and earlier competition legislation.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) will eloquently argue the case on his amendment No. 51, which attempts to test out or achieve something similar on the Bill's other substantial loophole, which relates to public policy. The House is owed an explanation of how often the public policy rubric would be used, and why we need it as well as the conditions of revenue-producing monopoly and general economic services, which might cover similar cases. Certainly the cases that I have in mind could be covered by either of those conditions.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has tabled his amendment partly to test out the exclusion and how wide it will be. The competition authority and the Bill will be very weak if those large loopholes remain and are generally used, so we shall urge the House to vote for the amendments.


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