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8.6 pm

Mr. Waterson: One might think that it was difficult to say anything new about the Bill by this stage, but I shall do my best—as the Minister and I prepare to stagger back to our respective corners to receive the ministrations of our managers.

We have been considering a long and detailed Bill: 274 clauses and 26 schedules. As I have said before, much of it is common ground. To call it an Enterprise Bill is puzzling, as it is a collection of different Bills—some of which contained sensible provisions—which have somehow become attached to one another. That makes it all the more surprising that the Government wanted to rush it through in such a hurry. I have already referred to the fact that we scarcely had time to draw breath between the coming into force of the Competition Act 1998 and the introduction of these new provisions and their effect on business.

Last Thursday, we managed to avoid any debate of cartels—which are, as the Minister explained, an important aspect of the measure—or market investigations, and there was precious little debate of mergers. That is extraordinary, because it is not as though there were massive party political differences on the entirety of the Bill, although there are some differences between us here and there which we have tried to bring to the fore. There has been relentless pressure to push the measure through. The point that I made on Thursday bears repetition: many people apart from ourselves will have to grapple with the complexities in the Bill when it becomes law.

I am still mystified that the Bill was not considered appropriate for pre-legislative scrutiny, as that would have created an opportunity to deal with many of the practical and technical objections that we have tried to raise in our role as the official Opposition. However, in fairness to the Government, several of our amendments were accepted and the Government have introduced some amendments based on our proposals.

I want to deal with some of the broad issues in the Bill. We welcome, of course, the formal recognition by statute of the ending of political interference by Ministers in decisions on takeovers and mergers. However, as I have explained previously, in theory, that should not make a vast difference to individual cases; since the Tebbit guidelines, Ministers have on the whole adopted that approach—a self-denying ordinance.

I hope that the provisions mean what they say, because the Government have fought like tigers to retain not only a provision about the public interest but also one that allows them to expand the definition of public interest by regulation. They assure us that they do not envisage

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circumstances in which they might do so, but let us hope that the House can hold a debate, which is as full as the rules allow, if and when the Government want to expand that definition.

I hope that shabby episodes of the sort that we debated on Thursday—the way in which the takeover of Express Newspapers Group by Mr. Desmond's companies was handled by the then Secretary of State—will be a thing of the past. There are still some major unanswered questions about that whole episode, not least about the precise criteria adopted by the then Secretary of State in making his decision on what the Office of Fair Trading called the non-competition issues. Fortunately, the Opposition are not alone in wishing to get to the bottom of those questions. A large and growing number of Labour Members would also like to know on what basis that decision was made and why it was followed only a few days later by a substantial donation to the Labour party.

Of course we welcome the strengthening of the competition regime, although we expressed our concerns in Committee about the apparent divergence between the new regime under the Bill and what is happening in the European Union. That will create extra problems for businesses, and it is completely at odds with this Government's attitude when the Competition Act 1998 was being debated. They then took the view that one should not be able to get a cigarette paper between what was happening in Europe and what was happening in this country. I wonder why.

The issue of criminalising cartels is great for a headline, but not much else. In Committee, we heard about the EU's express reservations about our moving in that direction if it is not doing so. There were concerns about how whistleblowers will be treated in practice and whether they will feel able to come forward if they know that criminal sanctions may await them. There were also concerns about the effect on investigations and, crucially, the effect on exchanging information between our regime and that in Europe or those in countries without express criminal sanctions.

We discussed those countries that very rarely used criminal sanctions even though they were on their statute books. It was interesting that our debate on that subject occurred precisely at the time of the result in the Sotheby's cartel trial. Mr. Alfred Taubman was sentenced to a period in Club Fed, whereas Sir Anthony Tennant will not be subject to criminal sanctions, let alone imprisonment, so long as he does not set foot in America.

In practice, will the directors of major companies be less willing to err or cross the line because criminal sanctions exist? Their existence does not seem to have affected Mr. Alfred Taubman in America, and they will not have the desired effect here. The proposal is a bit of gesture politics, but it will have a serious practical effect on the efficacy of investigations in this country.

We could have had a substantial debate on market investigations if we had had enough time last Thursday. The Government have failed to strike the balance between the need for proper investigations and the extra burdens to be placed on business by the various types of investigations that the OFT will be able to conduct with its new powers, functions and resources. The Government even resisted our modest amendment to place in the

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OFT's annual report an assessment of the cost to business of the investigations that it carried out in the preceding year.

Of course what really beggars belief is the fact that the regulatory impact assessment of the Bill itself concluded that there would be no effect on business if those provisions were placed on the statue book. I find that very difficult to believe, and have done throughout the proceedings on the Bill.

On consumer protection, we broadly welcome extending stop now orders, introducing super-complaints and the OFT's powers and functions, but we remain disappointed, as do many consumer organisations, that the Government have not been prepared to grasp the nettle of creating a general power to deal with the sort of scams, frauds and abuses that I described earlier today in the debate on those provisions. Despite the Bill's reaching the statute book, it is clear that many of those activities will continue unabated simply because the fraudsters are one step ahead of the law and the Government.

We debated the insolvency provisions at length today. Of course we welcome the abolition of Crown preference. That must be a practical and sensible step. We have significant reservations about the Government's attempts to remove or certainly to reduce the stigma of bankruptcy. It is absolutely impossible to understand how a genuine judgment can be made between culpable and non-culpable bankrupts. Not only do we believe that there is a third category of what I call pathological optimists, but the fact is that it will be very difficult to make those judgments, particularly as the period will be reduced to 12 months or less; as there will be no formal requirement on the official receiver to investigate all cases; and as the Insolvency Service's resources will be stretched to breaking point.

That would be bad enough with the existing number of bankruptcies, which has been steadily rising over the years, but we have predicted—the Government have not challenged this—that there will be a significant increase in the number of bankruptcies following the introduction of the provisions. In fact, we go further than that: there will be an explosion in the number of bankruptcies, as happened when similar measures were put into effect in the United States.

What blows out of the water any pretence that the Government have that the Bill is really about enterprise is the Minister's admission that she sees no theoretical reason to differentiate the length of the bankruptcy period for business and consumer bankrupts. She also made the separate assertion—it was perfectly open for her to do so—that it was difficult and impracticable to make that distinction. It will not be very long before the resources available to deal with the growing number of personal consumer bankruptcies in this country will become obviously inadequate.

The real problem with the Bill is that it has absolutely nothing whatever to do with enterprise, for we are debating it against a background of understandably deteriorating relations between the Government and industry and business. Britain is now 16th in the world competitiveness league tables. Ernst and Young's latest report shows that 52 per cent. of those asked—the sort of entrepreneurs to whom the Government like to feel they are close—thought that the Government gave low priority to entrepreneurship, and a staggering 1 per cent. thought

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that they gave it high priority. Even if the Government do not understand what they are trying to do, business men and women do.

The Minister quoted the Federation of Small Businesses, but it also had this to say:

The Independent—not exactly a sub-department of central office—said this about the Bill:

However, the Government simply and fundamentally fail to understand how business and entrepreneurial activity work. They simply do not understand. When we come right down to it, it is difficult to disagree with the CBI's judgment that the Bill's title is something of a misnomer.

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