Enterprise Bill

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Mr. Carmichael: I rise to endorse the words of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). The tribunal has a quasi-judicial function, so it is only sensible that the full range of civil avenues should be open for exploration. If an injunction were granted at an early stage but later found to be wrongful diligence, might not the damages be horrific? I presume that an injunction would be used sparingly in England. My only other observation relates to the drafting of the amendment. Subsection (2) refers to

    ''a claim in tort or, in Scotland, delict'',

so it would be similarly sensitive to acknowledge in the amendment that Scotland does not use the term ''injunction'', but ''interdict''. My amendment to the amendment would make it absolutely correct and more elegant.

Miss Johnson: First, clauses 16 and 17 are concerned with damages claims, so they can be grouped coherently together. Clause 15, however, belongs more appropriately with part 2, which we have not yet reached. If the hon. Member for Huntingdon reflected further on that, he would understand that that is the simple reason behind the current focus on clause 16.

The amendment would give the Competition Appeal Tribunal the power to grant injunctive

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relief—the power to make directions in the context of damages claims made before it. Such a power is unnecessary. When a damages claim is made before the tribunal, the issue of whether an infringement of competition law has taken place will already have been decided either by the OFT or the tribunal itself on appeal from the OFT. In taking decisions on infringements of competition law, the OFT or the tribunal will have full powers to grant injunctive relief in the form of directions. Additionally, the OFT will have the power to grant interim relief while it is still investigating a possible infringement and the tribunal to grant interim relief while it is still hearing an appeal.

If an appeal were made against a decision of the OFT that an agreement does not infringe the chapter 1 prohibition, the tribunal could make an interim order preventing the parties to the agreement from implementing it. If it is upheld, the CAT could make a final direction requiring the parties to modify or terminate the agreement. All such issues will have been decided before a damages claim is made, so any appropriate injunctions will already be in place. The power is not needed at the stage when the tribunal is hearing or deciding on a claim for damages. In a damages case, the only powers that the CAT needs are the power to award the damages and the power to award costs. On no occasion would an extension of the injunctive powers of the CAT to cover damages cases be required. Therefore, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment and ask the Committee to support me in opposing it.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank the Under-Secretary for her comprehensive response. Ultimately, the concept of damages is acceptable—certainly more than that of super complaints—if only because here we are talking about a defined set of circumstances rather than heading off into the unknown. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 55, in page 8, line 25, at end insert—

    '(5A) The limitation period for bringing claims pursuant to this section shall be six months from the date on which the cause of action arose.'.

The amendment is another attempt to limit the effect of the clause, by including a new subsection, (5A), which proposes a limitation period. Clause 16 amends the Competition Act 1998 to allow the tribunal to hear damages claims, but cases can be brought to the tribunal only after a finding by the United Kingdom or European authorities of an infringement of either the UK prohibitions or those in the European treaty. As I shall outline in more detail in our debate on clause 17, if there is a claim for damages in tort—in delict in Scotland—the tribunal will not be able to hear damages claims until any possible appeal has been heard.

The clause also makes it clear that findings of an infringement by the OFT and the tribunal are to be binding on all courts. I hope that the Minister will clarify matters in her reply, which will obviate the need for a stand part debate. I want to know what the position is likely to be. Can the Minister confirm that

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these are quasi-judicial hearings? Will people be permitted, or have the right to, legal representation?

It would be reasonable to introduce the six-month period in the amendment to avoid companies being put in excessive jeopardy. It is not an excessively short time. The limitation period for industrial tribunals, for example, is only three months. In any event, as a backstop, as clause 16(6) shows, general civil claims are not affected by the proposal, so if the proposed limitation period expires, civil proceedings may still be brought by injured parties. I stress that the six months would start to run only from the time that the cause of action arises, which will be clearly definable in terms of the infringements to which I referred. I urge the Committee to support the amendment.

Mr. Djanogly: The possible consequences for a company of a claim being made under clause 16 could be severe, so I support the concept of a time period. The CAT will be a new organisation. I am not sure how it would work without amendment and I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the Committee whether existing general laws of limitation will apply to claims. I should have thought not, as there will be a tribunal rather than a court process, therefore it is particularly important that there should be a cap on the time period. Clause 17, which we shall discuss later, will empower consumers to make claims. I have visions of an American-type situation in which law firms advertise for claimants and trail around the country trying to get as many people as they can to join the action, which will go on for months or even years as a result. That would be damaging to the company and to the legal process. For that reason, it is important to get the measure right.

By tradition, time scales in tribunal processes are generally shorter than in court cases. We do not want to detract from what is in the best interests of the taxpayer. I therefore suggest that the six-month period is appropriate.

Miss Johnson: The Bill enables the period within which claims can be brought to be stipulated in the tribunal rules that are made by the Secretary of State. We are considering what we should align to that period. Under section 2 of the Limitation Act 1980, the period for the courts is six years. There seems to be no reason why the option of pursuing a claim through the tribunal should be available for a shorter time than is available for making an equivalent claim through the courts. Our aim is to facilitate, rather than to discourage, the bringing of claims before the tribunal. Claims can be brought only when the full process has been gone through and when an appeal, if relevant, has been heard.

3.15 pm

Mr. Djanogly: I disagree. There is a tradition in this country of differing periods between court and tribunal processes, which is one reason for tribunals. Employment comes to mind. An employee may have a contractual right to sue for six years, but may have to go to a tribunal within three months.

Miss Johnson: The tribunal is a fully judicial body and legal representation is as available in a tribunal as it is in a court.

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Mr. Waterson: Before the Under-Secretary finishes discussing that matter, would it not be unusual for any tribunal to have the power to specify its own limitation period? She, or even the Secretary of State, is right that under the Limitation Act 1980 there is a limit of six years on ordinary and other contractual claims. However, there is a panoply of different time limits in English law. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon mentioned personal injury in employment tribunals, for which the limit is three years. For some bizarre reason, it is two years for collision cases in Admiralty law and there is a range of other cases. Is it right for the period to be established by regulation rather than mainstream law?

Miss Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is making a point not only about whether the time limit should be in the Bill, but about it being six months. Six months is a short amount of time for many cases. Issues relating to damages, for example, can be complex.

Mr. Carmichael: I remind the Under-Secretary of the restricted scope of subsection (5), which relates to cases where paragraphs (d) and (e) apply. Almost everything that is to be discovered about such cases will have been discovered long before any such period starts. There is a need for time limits, or prescription periods, in the Bill. That was always agreed and it is an undesirable departure to prescribe time limits by rules of court.

Miss Johnson: I have listened carefully to the arguments of Opposition Members, but six months is too short a timeframe. It would be unfortunate if the Bill specified a time limit of six months and I urge the hon. Gentlemen to withdraw the amendment. We are considering the time limit and I will return to it later in the debate.

Mr. Waterson: The Under-Secretary kindly said that she does not have a closed mind on the subject and will reconsider it. That is entirely appropriate, as she has divined that there is a strong groundswell of belief that the issue should be reconsidered. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Claims on behalf of consumers

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 70, page 8, line 33, after 'specified', insert 'consumer'.

We have been pretty good so far at avoiding unnecessary stand part debates and I am sure that we will continue to do so, as they can be repetitive and tedious, in stark contrast to the debates on the amendments. With your leave, Mr. Conway, I intend to deal narrowly with the amendments in the hope that fortune might shine on me and you might allow a stand part debate on clause 17. I thought that I should say that now.

The amendment is straightforward. It would simply insert the word ''consumer'', so that the provision would relate to a ''specified consumer body''. It is in the spirit of both the clause and legislation to make that clear and I cannot see why it would be

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objectionable. I will be surprised if the Under-Secretary does not accept it with enthusiasm.

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