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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 229.

Amendment No. 142, in clause 45, page 31, line 36, at end insert—

'(5A) The Secretary of State shall not make a reference under section 44(3) or (5) when a relevant public interest consideration which is mentioned in the intervention notice has not been finalised.'.

Government amendment No. 234.

Amendment No. 304, in clause 57, page 40, line 15, after "of" insert "(a)'

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Amendment No. 305, in page 40, line 15, after "security" insert—

'(b) maintaining and promoting the balanced distribution of industry and employment in the United Kingdom;

(c) maintaining and promoting competitive activity in markets outside the United Kingdom on the part of producers of goods, and of suppliers of goods and services, in the United Kingdom.'.

Amendment No. 197, in page 40, line 15, at end insert—

'(1A) The interests of plurality in newspaper ownership are specified in this section.'.

Amendment No. 198, in page 40, line 18, at end insert—

'(2A) In subsection (1A) "newspaper" shall have the same meaning as in section 57(1)(a) of the 1973 Act; and in this subsection "plurality" means a diversity of ownership that is sufficient to ensure that the public have access to the accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion.

(2B) In applying the interests specified in subsection (1A) no account should be taken of plurality in newspaper ownership if the relevant merger situation concerns the transfer of a newspaper or newspaper assets to a newspaper proprietor whose newspapers have an average circulation per day of publication amounting, together with that of the newspaper concerned in the transfer, of fewer than 500,000 copies.

(2C) In subsection (2B), "newspaper proprietor" shall have the same meaning as section 57(1)(b) of the 1973 Act; and the calculation of circulation per day shall be by such means as the OFT or (as the case may be) the Commission shall determine.'.

Amendment No. 143, in page 40, line 19, leave out subsections (3) and (4).

Government amendments Nos. 243 to 245.

Mr. Waterson: As this may be the last group of amendments that we can deal with before 7 pm under the guillotine procedure, it may be helpful if I point out that we intend to press amendment No. 63 to a Division, as we feel strongly about it. The group deals with public interest and mergers, but there will be some echoes from topics that we discussed in the debate on the previous group.

At present, the only definition of public interest appears in clause 57. The clause defines public security in the terms set out in the European merger regulations. We had a significant number of debates on these matters in Committee. Our starting point is that the provision is crucial, so it is right that it should be firmly stated in the Bill. Our approach is rather different from that of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), and our concern is that it should not be open to the Government to add a new ground of public interest when they feel like it.

When we pressed the issue in Committee, the Minister was wedded to the power to extend the definition, but she was wholly unable to say—in fairness, she said the same this afternoon—what possible category she might have in mind to add to the definition in the Bill. Nevertheless, the Government's position seems to be that it is imperative to include the power.

The effect of amendment No. 63 would be to remove the Secretary of State's ability to consider public interest considerations not listed in the legislation. We debated a similar amendment in Committee. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State could simply add a new public interest

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consideration, or more than one such consideration, in response to a specific merger or proposed merger, as it arose.

Apart from anything else, that could involve enormous uncertainty for those in the business sector. When embarking on a merger, they would not know whether the goalposts would be moved in due course by the addition of a new public interest ground because the Secretary of State had decided to change the rules. That is another good reason why any other public interest consideration—whether media plurality, which we shall come to in a moment, prudential rules or anything of that sort—should be identified in the primary legislation.

If it is not possible to identify those considerations now and they arise later, it should be possible to add them to the Act, as it will then be, by primary legislation. If something arose that was so important and so unforeseeable that no one can even imagine what it would be, any Government ought to be able, possibly with cross-party agreement and—who knows?—possibly even with the agreement of their Back Benchers, to put through the House the necessary primary legislation, and quite quickly, if needs must.

There is also a side issue. If we leave open this great loophole, it merely returns us to what I am sure the Minister would regard as the bad old days of political involvement in such matters.

I shall touch briefly on amendments Nos. 142, 197 and 198 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who will develop the arguments in detail. Amendment No. 142 relates to the Secretary of State's power to make merger references arising from a public interest intervention notice. My hon. Friend will develop the reasons for the amendment. Amendments Nos. 197 and 198 deal with the plurality of newspaper ownership. The effect of amendment No. 143 echoes that of amendment No. 63.

It is impossible to consider what the Government have in mind in changing the law on mergers and takeovers without considering how those matters have been dealt with up till now.

We argued in Committee—with some justification, I think—that all we are doing in the Bill is regularising what has been practice for a considerable time. Under the so-called Tebbit guidelines, there has been a kind of self-denying ordinance among successive Secretaries of State of both parties that they would look narrowly at competition issues when reaching their decisions. It is fair to say that there is an element of cross-party consensus that seeming political involvement brings the system into disrepute. The average member of the public finds it difficult to distinguish between a politician making a decision on non-political grounds and one making a decision on political grounds.

6.30 pm

Fast-forwarding from the Tebbit doctrine, we come to 26 October 2000, when the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers)—a familiar name in the House—announced that Ministers would accept the advice of the Director General of Fair Trading on takeover matters, save in exceptional circumstances.

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Enter stage left the figure of Mr. Richard Desmond, whose Northern and Shell media group on 22 November of that year paid £125 million for Express Newspapers Group. Mr. Desmond had a busy week, because only four days later, on 26 November, he had a half-hour chat at No. 10 with the Prime Minister.

Mr. Desmond has forced himself into the consciousness of many of us recently through the titles of some of the magazines that he publishes, as well as through his newspaper activities. The list of publications is very long; I was going to say that it is impressive, but it is long. There are titles such as Weird Sex Special[Interruption.] That is obviously familiar to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase).

Titles include Horny Housewives, Mega Boobs, and for the real enthusiast, The Very Best of Mega Boobs. There is also a magazine called Mothers-in-Law. I could go on; I probably will. Asian Babes is another title that is not unfamiliar. In fairness, Mr. Desmond also publishes magazines such as Worldwide Golf, which as far as I can tell has nothing to it other than an interest in the game of golf.

In any event, the issue arose whether the then Secretary of State would refer the takeover of Express Newspapers. Events had moved on by that stage. During the new year celebrations of 2001, Mr. Desmond had told senior Labour figures that he was willing to offer them free advertising in the run-up to the election.

January was a busy month; Mr. Desmond's editor at The Express resigned, and on 7 February, the then Secretary of State announced that he would not refer the takeover of The Express to the Competition Commission. Only eight days later, on 15 February, it is understood that the Labour party banked Mr. Desmond's cheque for £100,000. To show that relations were particularly cordial and fraternal, Mr. Alastair Campbell attended Mr. Desmond's 50th birthday party in December.

Mr. McWalter: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his remarks seem to be rather tenuously linked to any arguments that might encourage us to support amendment No. 63?

Mr. Waterson: That is more a matter for the Chair, although I do not accept the proposition for a moment. We are discussing public interest in mergers. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, who has strong views about almost everything, although he puts his arguments with a certain charm, has strong views about whether Ministers of the Crown should be able to intervene in employment matters. He made a powerful case on that in the previous debate. However, some people and certainly some members of the Labour party have similar views about the activities of the party's donors, such as Mr. Desmond.

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