HC Deb 05 November 1986 vol 103 cc936-7
1. Mr. Pavitt

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he last met the chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to discuss competition policy.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Paul Channon)

My last meeting with the chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission took place on 15 April 1986.

Mr. Pavitt

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, will he discuss in depth the human tragedies which are occurring as a result of rationalisation of takeover bids which lead to unemployment and family tragedy? In particular, will he look at the present takeover bid for Ault and Wyborg in the London borough of Brent, which is a good borough, and the loss of jobs that will occur if the takeover bid continues? Is it not time to stop raising the golden calf and the idol of glory for profit and look at people instead?

Mr. Channon

I shall refrain today from commenting about the London borough of Brent. The Office of Fair Trading is making preliminary inquiries into the possible takeover referred to by the hon. Gentleman. If it qualifies on assets or market share under the Fair Trading Act 1973, the Director General of Fair Trading will advise me in the normal way on the question of a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr. Grylls

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people will be greatly encouraged by the setting up of the Leisener committee to look into competition policy? Does he agree that the Government's determination to see the growth of small and medium sized businesses, which has already had considerable success throughout the country, means that competition policy should be shaped to protect smaller firms from restrictive practices and excessive merger mania?

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend has already given evidence to the committee and I shall certainly consider with great care the submissions that he and his colleagues have made about these issues, which I believe have much support in the House.

Mr. Ashdown

Within the context of competition policy, will the Minister explain how competition in the British economy is increased or improved by converting British Gas and British Telecom from public monopolies into private ones?

Mr. Channon

The whole House is well aware of the great success of the British Telecom flotation, and I am sure that the same will happen with British Gas.

Mr. Cash

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that detailed negotiations are taking place within the European Community on competition policy and that it would be highly desirable if more persons were qualified in matters relating to competition law? Does he agree that the Law Society and the Bar Council should take these matters seriously, because, on the whole, people are at present singularly ill qualified to advise on matters of that kind.

Mr. Channon

That is an important and interesting point. I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend has said. There is considerable interest in the commission about the whole area of competition policy and that, of course, will be considered in the review.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does the Secretary of State accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) has raised an important matter? There are great injustices in this area. Will he, at the Dispatch Box today, condemn predatory acquisition by companies of other companies only for the purpose of closure? Is he aware that in the case of the Scottish and Newcastle attempt to take over Matthew Brown last year the only intention was to close the brewery in Workington? That is happening in other areas of the economy and it is for Secretaries of State to condemn that practice from the Dispatch Box. Scottish and Newcastle may well come back with a further bid in the next two months.

Mr. Channon

It would be quite wrong of me to make any comment on cases that might come before me when I have to decide whether to refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It is essential in such cases that I preserve my right to act on my own discretion in deciding whether to refer matters to the MMC.

Mr. Dorrell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, increasingly, competition policy should be operated on a Europe-wide rather than a purely national basis? Is it not crazy for us to be talking on the one hand about completing the internal market while on the other hand we are continuing and often even reinforcing the fragmentation of the European market?

Mr. Channon

The European aspects are always taken into account in deciding whether to refer a proposed takeover to the MMC. I have some doubts about the proposition advanced by my hon. Friend that it would be preferable for those matters to be decided by bodies other than the British Government.