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12.4 am

Mr. Chidgey: I, too, do not intend to detain the House for long--[Interruption.]--although I am grateful for the support that I seem to be gathering from all corners of the House; the longer it goes on, the longer I will go on.

The Liberal Democrats have made it clear since Second Reading that we support the main principles in the Bill and welcome the strengthening of competition law by the two major prohibitions: the chapter I prohibition on agreements to prevent, restrict or distort competition, and the prohibition of abuse of a dominant position. We have had many interesting, but not necessarily satisfactory, debates on those. We also agree with the principle of providing for a new regime to be applied and enforced by the Director General of Fair Trading and giving powers to investigate if reasonable grounds for suspecting that either of those two prohibitions have been infringed.

However, it is about the body of the Bill, the substance of the debate and the detail of the arguments that our reservations have remained--reservations which the Government have failed to overcome in spite of extensive debates, attempts to amend the Bill and lengthy probing in Committee.

Hon. Members will recall that the Bill came to the House from the other place with key amendments, which in the main met our fundamental reservations about the Bill. During our debates, the Government have seen fit in every case to overturn those amendments--specifically, measures to clarify the exclusion of vertical agreements, to resolve the issue of retail price maintenance on over-the-counter medicines and the effect that that will have on community pharmacies, and to tackle the dangers of predatory anti-competitive practices in reducing the diversity and independence of our national newspaper press.

The last is the key issue--the Government's refusal to recognise the limitations of the Bill in dealing with predatory anti-competitive practices in the national press. The Government have claimed that the various amendments tabled at different stages were all unnecessary and unworkable, yet they know only too well that independent and highly respected legal advice has

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argued to the contrary. At the very least, the Government's legal advice is saying one thing and equally eminent, reliable and respected advice is saying the opposite. That means that we may enact a Bill which will be a field day for lawyers and a great benefit to those organisations that intend to pursue predatory practices.

The Government should reflect on that, as this Bill could well be a Pandora's box for the future. I hope that it will not be, and that, through the various processes, we will find some strength in it. If we do not, the Government know where the blame will lie.

12.7 am

Mr. Brooke: I shall be exceptionally brief.

In the first debate of this Parliament, I said that the battle of Isandhlwana was over, and the defence of the mission station at Rorke's Drift was about to begin. The Minister of State, who was good-humoured throughout our proceedings, paid me the, perhaps unconscious, compliment of echoing that thought. In Committee, he picked up a reference of mine to faith and bestowed the soubriquet of "Faith, Hope and Charity" on my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), the Whip.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Minister bestowed upon them the names of the three Fairey Swordfish biplanes that, at the start of the world war two assault on Malta, represented the entire British aerial defence of the island available to the Governor. The

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Government may mock the resources available to this side of the House, but the three Fairey Swordfish successfully defended Malta, and we went on to win the war.

12.8 am

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): As perhaps one of the few Members of the House who have run businesses around the world, I welcome in principle an improvement in competition law. It has been my experience that north America and even Asia have considerably more open and competitive economies than continental Europe or the United Kingdom. However, I am not entirely sure whether the primary objective of the Bill is harmonisation with European competition law or the improvement of competition in Britain.

The Bill has grave weaknesses. We have already heard of the problems of harmonising with European law relating to intrastate versus interstate under article 85. We need to harmonise on whether cases will be heard in one jurisdiction when they could be dealt with in two. Companies will have the problem of requiring clearance both in Europe and in the United Kingdom. There is the problem of whether UK authorities can vary exemptions obtained in Europe, which could add to the muddle.

The Bill will create uncertainty, and it will give too much power to the Director General of Fair Trading, rather than providing democratic accountability through the President of the Board of Trade. It will be a burden on medium and small businesses. I am particularly concerned that those who run oligopolistic companies seem too relaxed. I hope that the Bill will improve competition, but I fear that it tries to do two different things, and that it will fail adequately to achieve either.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

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Economic Development (North Northumberland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Pope.]

12.10 am

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs has been on the Treasury Bench for most of the past seven hours, but I must detain him a little longer. A matter of importance to people in my constituency has arisen from the announcement last week by the Dawson Group of more than 700 redundancies. The group, which owns Pringle, the knitwear company, has blamed the high pound, a reduction in far east markets and general economic conditions, all of which have presented severe obstacles to exporting companies, particularly those producing quality products for the far east. However, the company has had its own failings in the United States and in its marketing strategy.

It is a tragedy for Berwick that so many jobs should be lost in the borders. Pringle has been in Berwick for 50 years, and the factory that is to close currently employs 280 people. The remainder of the 700 jobs are in other parts of the borders. Pringle used not say much about the Berwick factory; I think that it thought that too high a profile for the significant part of its product that was expertly made in England would undermine its claim to be Pringle of Scotland. Privately, however, Pringle recognised how successful that manufacturing unit was.

The shock closure follows many years of job losses in a small town that cannot stand so many losses. Recently, 200 jobs were lost at Pringle. More than 100 jobs were lost when Polychrome left Berwick. About 100 seasonal jobs in the salmon fishing industry have been lost. More than 150 went when the shipyard closed. Other trades, including agriculture and engineering, have also had significant job losses. The latest blow is devastating for the families involved. The loss to the local economy will add up to millions of pounds in wages that passed through the town's businesses and contributed to the welfare of all.

We need help, on both sides of the border, and some of the crisis can be dealt with on a cross-border basis. Reports in London newspapers have referred to closure of two Scottish factories by Pringle, carefully omitting to mention that one of them is in England. That is why the English Minister responsible for industry--Scotsman though he is--is here to answer this debate. His counterpart at the Scottish Office, the Minister for Education and Industry, has also been closely involved in discussions since the redundancies were announced. He said:


There are many reasons why the Scottish Office must remain interested in what is happening not only in Scottish parts of the borders, but in Berwick-upon-Tweed, for which the English-based Minister is responsible.

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office visited Hawick two days after the closure announcement. He announced a package of measures at a meeting arranged before the closure by my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). The package aroused much interest.

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My hon. Friend described it as the beginning of an answer, feeling grateful that the measures had been announced but that more needed to be done. From the English side of the border, the question that comes to mind is: what is our equivalent of those measures? That is one of the things that I hope the Minister will tell us tonight.

The Scottish Office Minister announced an additional £1 million for Scottish Borders Enterprise immediately; a commitment to best endeavours to find additional extra funding if Scottish Borders Enterprise can bring forward further viable projects; the setting up of a new rural inward investment unit within Locate in Scotland, which will attract investment to areas such as the borders; a commitment to provide the borders with reallocated, unused European structural funds if any become available; and a commitment to keep discussions with the Dawson Group open and to assist it in redevelopment. We are anxious that that may lead to the funding of new factory development on the Scottish side of the border to replace factory capacity still available on the English side. That would make no sense.

The Scottish Office Minister also announced Scottish Office support for an IT link between Heriot-Watt university and the Scottish college of textiles and mentioned other measures already announced, such as the designation of Hawick as a property employment support programme area and the expansion of telecoms infrastructure in the borders. In some parts of the borders, it is even less developed than it is in Berwick. The package must have some English counterpart, and I hope that the Minister will say what it is.

I wish to put to the Minister some other measures that should form part of the response on the English side. On European funds, we are already anxious about the potential loss of objective 5b funds, which have been a source of some help for industrial projects in north Northumberland. Northumberland and Durham's joint bid for objective 1 funding has been jeopardised by the claims of European statisticians that it is not a cohesive area. I contradict that argument. I hope that the Government will continue to press actively for objective 1 status.

I wonder whether the Retex scheme for textile areas still has funds in it that could be made available to help replace lost textile jobs in the area. The loss of jobs in the textile industries is recognised across Europe as requiring special help.

There are employment measures that could be taken. The Government could accelerate the new deal programme for over-25s. On present plans, it will be some time before they become eligible, and redundant Pringle workers would not be become eligible until they had satisfied the 12-month rule. In other areas, I think that measures have been taken to exempt redundant workers from that limitation. It could be done alongside bringing forward the new deal measures for over-25s so that they become available more quickly in Berwick. I hope that the Minister will press his colleagues to pursue that course.

To attract new industry to the area, we want to press ahead with infrastructure projects that make the area attractive to and viable for industry, of which the best known is the need to complete the dualling of the A1, which remains on either side of Berwick an unsatisfactory single carriageway road and a deterrent to industrial development. There is cross-party agreement that dualling

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should go ahead. We await the announcement of the roads review with trepidation. I hope that the news about Pringle has been telegraphed to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions so that it realises that A1 dualling has assumed even further importance as we try to make the area attractive to industry.

Berwick has longer-term plans for a rail freight terminal. We want that development to be encouraged. There are also various local projects in different Government Departments and with other bodies which, in these circumstances, Ministers should try to help along and give a sympathetic nod to. There is a private finance initiative bid by the council for 250 houses to be built by housing associations in the town and the surrounding area; I hope that that will be encouraged. There is a foyer project for young people in the Old Granary in the town centre. There is a heritage lottery bid for completion of townscape work that has already been begun, but has been set back by a change in the national heritage fund rules and system of bidding. I am concerned about that, because we need such work to continue; it provides some continuing employment during the present crisis and helps to attract people to the town.

I emphasise that many of my suggestions go beyond the Department of Trade and Industry. What needs to be done is interdepartmental, involving many Government Departments, and cross-border. We used to have an eastern borders development association that recognised, by its very existence, that the eastern borders had a coherence. Indeed, the borders as a whole, with their shared dependence on the textile industry and agriculture, have many features in common; people travel across the border, and businesses ignore the border as their activities cross it continuously. We have to look at the impact on both sides of the border of measures of this sort.

A practical way forward is to respond to the present crisis by getting the relevant agencies together and knocking heads together so that we can get some co-ordination of possible solutions. That could be done by forming a task group, which could meet in Berwick and draw together all those who have a contribution to make, ensuring that action in Berwick was related to that in the adjoining borders. That group could include the local authorities from both sides of the Border--Northumberland county council, Berwick-upon-Tweed borough council and the Scottish Borders council--the Northumberland training and enterprise council, Northumberland business link, English Partnerships, the Northern Development Company, the Government office for the north-east and Scottish Enterprise. The group would embrace the means to cover local business development, training measures, the attraction of new activities to the town and the provision of the new infrastructure and facilities to support new growth. In addition, it could press the European funding issues I mentioned.

The work would be greatly helped if the Government looked again at Berwick's status for development purposes. Berwick lost its assisted area status in 1984, but, much more recently, the Rural Development Commission excluded Berwick from the areas in which it did economic regeneration work, even though that work was vital to the rural hinterland around Berwick, whose population's prospects depended on what happened in the town. Now

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that the factory closure has taken place, surely this is the moment to reintroduce the RDC work into Berwick. That work is in the process of being transferred to the regional development agency, but, before that process is completed, a decision should be taken that Berwick should be included within the rural project work that used to be undertaken by the RDC.

All that work can be better advanced if we get the various agencies together, recognise that many Departments, governmental bodies and local government bodies have a contribution to make, and acknowledge that the problem is a cross-border issue. We have to get people moving to draw together the resources that are already available through existing channels and to put in bids for the new funds that will be needed for significant new action.

Over the years, the nominal unemployment rate in Berwick may have appeared low, but, as in much of the borders, that is partly because young people simply give up and go away to find work elsewhere. The actual unemployment rate will be increased by 50 per cent. as a result of the closure of the Pringle factory. The situation has worsened significantly, so action of the sort that I have outlined is now essential.


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