HC Deb 16 February 1981 vol 999 cc5-6
5. Mr. Sheerman

asked the Secretary of State for Trade what plans he has to improve and strengthen the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr. Biffen

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission has been strengthened to perform its new functions under the Competition Act, and I have just appointed an additional deputy chairman. In consultation with the chairman, we shall keep its resources and procedures under review.

Mr. Sheerman

Is not the right hon. Gentleman concerned that in the recent takeover of Times Newspapers Ltd the commission could not respond in less than 10 to 12 weeks? Murdoch has taken over The Times, and perhaps that will be a lasting and fitting tribute to the new Secretary of State for Trade. Does he not agree that the time scales will have to be improved in future if this body is to be any use?

Mr. Biffen

The speed with which the commission can work is affected quite substantially by the amount of evidence that it has to consider and the speed with which that evidence is made available. The commission said that it thought that it might take as long as eight weeks to consider the representations put before it in the case of Times Newspapers Ltd. I have no reason to doubt its judgment.

Mr. Henderson

Will my right hon. Friend consider bringing shipping cartels within the ambit of the antimonopoly legislation, especially in view of recent evidence that British exporters are suffering positive disadvantage compared with their German competitors?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of my hon. Friend's suggestion. I am sure that he does not expect me to give an immediate answer.

Mr. Christopher Price

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the monopoly position of the Press Association, which is a monopoly owned by local monopolies? It has occupied that position since the demise of Extel. Is he aware that I have recently discussed this matter with the Director General of Fair Trading? Will he make urgent inquiries to ascertain whether the Director General is willing to pursue an inquiry so that we can have a free flow of news in this country?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly inquire of the Director General of Fair Trading about the consequences of the correspondence to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Mellor

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was much support inside and outside the House for his decision not to refer The Times takeover to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? Does he agree that it is extraordinary that Mr. Murdoch should be subjected to such abuse from the Opposition for protecting hundreds of jobs by taking over a business which currently is losing £13 million a year?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise that my decision was controversial. I do not complain for one moment about that. I take note of what my hon. Friend so encouragingly says.

Mr. John Smith

Is the Secretary of State aware that the view just expressed to him is a minority view and that most hon. Members believe that he should have referred the matter to the Commission? Since he substituted for a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission a set of conditions upon the new proprietor of The Times and The Sunday Times, what sanction can he apply to the new proprietor if he breaks those conditions?

Mr. Biffen

Question No. 16 addresses itself specifically to that matter and I shall deal with it then.