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30 Oct 2002 : Column 918—continued

Mr. Robathan: We are, of course, delighted that the Government have listened to the sensible arguments put forward in another place by my noble Friends Lord Kingsland, Lord Hunt of Wirral and others. The Government are rather foolish to say that their current belief is that the provision will not be necessary. Experienced lawyers have concluded that it will be necessary, and I am therefore delighted that the Government have accepted our views. That merely begs the question why such a contingency plan was not included in the Bill in the first place. With 750-odd amendments to the Bill, however, we are not that surprised.

We have taken unofficial legal advice on the matter, which was that amendment (a) to Lords amendment 7 is somewhat better than the one that we produced, so we are happy to accept it—one would expect a parliamentary draftsman to do better than an amateur

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parliamentary draftsman. Nevertheless, I would like to thank Sir Jeremy Lever, an eminent Queen's counsel, for his sensible and public spirited assistance.

I want to raise some concerns relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I am not a lawyer, so I hope that the Minister will be able to put me right—as she knows, I have come to the Bill somewhat late, so perhaps she will be able to do so straight away. Will the Government clarify whether separate measures will be necessary for Scotland and Northern Ireland? Although the Lord Chancellor is given particular mention, I had understood that the Lord President had jurisdiction in Scotland. I certainly understand that the joint working party of the Bars and Law Societies of the United Kingdom says that, in this case, the Lord Chancellor would not have the relevant jurisdiction. Could the Minister scurry around to get some legal advice on that point before we finish our consideration of this clause?

Mr. Redwood: I welcome the Government's change of heart in one important respect. I think that they will find that they need to make use of the provision. As for the principal arguments, it will expedite proceedings, as the general court system is very congested, and some of these cases need to be dealt with in a timely way. Furthermore, the technical complexity of this extremely voluminous Bill, which is very much in evidence this evening, will require specialists to argue the case and to adjudicate the complex issues involved. It will therefore often be necessary to send such cases to a tribunal to be dealt with by people who are well versed in this complicated area, and to ensure that they are dealt with in an expeditious manner. I hope that the Minister will enter fully into the spirit of the Government's welcome change of heart and recognise that it is not just a belt-and-braces provision. It was strongly recommended by independent lawyers of no political persuasion who have worked in this area for many years and have a firm view of how such matters should be handled.

6.30 pm

Miss Melanie Johnson: I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for his remarks. Of course, I enter into the spirit as well as into the letter of the suggestion. I reassure him of that.

The Government have not acted in the way that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) suggested. We have not been foolish. We believe that the provision will not, in general, be necessary and that the courts will equip themselves with the necessary expertise. Views obviously differ, so we have accepted the wisdom of the suggestion that the Bill should contain the provision. Accordingly, we have tabled amendments that are as effective and as appropriate as possible.

I am not a lawyer, but I have taken legal advice about the issue of separate measures in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The court rules for Northern Ireland are made by the Lord Chancellor and are not a reserved matter. In fact, Northern Ireland will be covered exactly as specified in the Bill. The hon. Member for Blaby is correct about the position in Scotland, but the law will be consistent. The Lord President will make the rules in Scotland in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggested. There will be a separate arrangement for Scotland, but not for Northern Ireland.

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Lords amendment disagreed to.

Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 7 agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 8 to 17 agreed to.

Clause 21

Duty To Make References In Relation To Completed Mergers

Lords amendment: No. 18 in page 11, line 19, leave out paragraph (e) and insert—
X(e) the European Commission is considering a request made, in relation to the matter concerned, by the United Kingdom (whether alone or with others) under article 22(3) of the European Merger Regulations, is proceeding with the matter in pursuance of such a request or has dealt with the matter in pursuance of such a request."

Miss Melanie Johnson: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 21, 22, 24, 28, 34, 53, amendments (a) and (b) thereto, 54, amendments (a) to (c) thereto, 65, 66, 78, 81, 82, 84, 88 to 90, 116, 117, 136 to 142 and 211.

Miss Johnson: This group of amendments covers issues relating to the interaction between domestic regimes and European competition law. In particular, we have introduced amendments to clarify and improve the relationship in four areas. We have sought, first, to highlight the primacy of EC competition law where it applies and, secondly, to clarify the domestic duty to reflect that. The third point is the need to ensure that the Secretary of State can act to protect legitimate interests in cases that fall to the EC merger regime for assessment of the competition aspects. The fourth and final area is the minor changes to the power to take account of modernisation. They are sensible amendments to ensure that the new domestic regime is a good fit with EC competition law.

The Government intend to resist the amendments to Lords amendment No. 53, and I shall take your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether I can do that. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) will no doubt wish to speak to his amendments.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I wish to speak to amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment No. 53, and to amendments (a), (b) and (c) to Lords amendment No. 54.

This is the fourth attempt that has been made in the two Houses to try to insert into the Bill serious provisions relating to the public interest that are in line with those in section 84 of the Fair Trading Act 1973. Under the current legislation, it is possible in theory for the Secretary of State or the Director General of the Office of Fair Trading to refer to the Competition Commission a merger that might seriously affect the public interest. In the 1973 Act, the public interest is described as relating to the balance of industry and employment throughout the United Kingdom and to a

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consideration of the ability of UK producers to compete in export markets. If those markets are harmed or damaged, the Competition Commission can consider a merger.

Unfortunately, since the time that Lord Tebbit was a Member of the House, the policy of Governments of both persuasions has been not to make great use of that power. It is not true to say that it has never been used, but it has been difficult to persuade Governments to act. Ideally, I would like moves to be made so that action is obligatory while retaining as much as possible of the 1973 provision. I have pursued that aim on several occasions in the House.There is much concern in the trade union movement about this matter, and the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress and most of the major trade unions have made representations to the Secretary of State. I elaborated on that in our earlier debates on this issue.

The Bill restricts public interest considerations to defence matters and contains a longstop provision, which means that the public interest can be referred to. However, the Government have never defined what that means or clarified the circumstances in which the provision could be used. The Conservatives tend to fear the Government's provision, believing that a horse and cart could be driven through it. However, I see the Government's approach as something of which we know not what. It is unlikely to be used in any feasible circumstances, so it is likely to be a fairly insignificant power. We therefore need a much stronger provision for the public interest to be introduced.

We first discussed the matter in Standing Committee. The probing amendments that I tabled were based on the experience in my constituency of the takeover of Biwaters by Saint-Gobain, which resulted in the immediate loss of 700 jobs. In terms of employment, the distribution of industry, export markets and viability, Biwaters was in a good position. What happened was a disgrace. We should have activated and made use of the 1973 measure.

I forced a vote on the issue on Report, as reflected at columns 1094–95 of Hansard on 13 June, when I managed to muster 39 in support of the measure. Some 245 hon. Members voted against it. I do not imagine that the Government are going to have a change of heart and make a concession, so I intend to divide the House on my amendments. The vote on 13 June was the only hostile vote by Labour Members because the Bill contains many acceptable provisions. Indeed, there has been little hassle throughout its proceedings. The Bill is lengthy. It has been greatly debated and many amendments have been tabled, but there has not been a raft of votes or heated discussions. Opposition Members have in general been happy with the Bill. They view it as a way to produce a dynamic economy, and that part of new Labour ideology appeals to some of them.

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A third attempt was made to introduce public interest measures. When the Lords discussed the Bill in Committee, probing amendments were tabled by Baroness Turner, supported by Lord Hoyle. My amendments have a different framework and context.

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