HC Deb 07 December 1988 vol 143 cc309-10
14. Mr. Ian Taylor

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what discussions he has had with the Confederation of British Industry regarding the proposed reform of the law on mergers.

Mr. Maude

I have had no such discussions recently. However, the improvements to merger control procedures that we are proposing arose from our review of mergers policy, to which the CBI submitted views.

Mr. Taylor

When my hon. Friend next has discussions with the CBI, will he remind it that many of its members are now successfully making acquisitions in other countries and that, rather than introduce protectionism in the domestic market and tinker with the takeover code, the way forward is for it to back my hon. Friend's efforts to remove restrictions in other countries, particularly within the European Community?

Mr. Maude

It is worth pointing out that for the last 12 months for which figures are available, till September of this year, the value of acquisitions by United Kingdom companies overseas was slightly more than double the value of acquisitions in the United Kingdom by overseas companies. The policy of openness that we have espoused has been beneficial for the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that barriers to takeovers are being mounted in other countries within the European Community. I have asked the European Commission to bring forward proposals to address some of the barriers, and I have had an encouraging response.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Why does the Minister not admit that the Government's merger policy has been a total disaster? It has been diluted, it takes no account of jobs, industrial logic or the national interest and it has encouraged an orgy of speculation and takeover, rather than investment, which has reached record heights in the last quarter. All the research shows that there has been not overall benefit, but overall harm, from those takeovers, yet the Government have dithered on with their review of policy. Why does the Minister not come out with the truth and tell us that the Government's only mergers policy is a great big "for sale" notice over British industry?

Mr. Maude

It is difficult to know which of the hon. Gentleman's propositions is more wrong. He has got it wrong all the way down the line. We have made clear our policy. We shall refer mergers when a competition issue arises. We would not ordinarily refer mergers on any other basis, although it is not an exclusive criterion. As the figures that I have just given show, the fact is that we have been benefiting enormously from having a broadly open policy towards acquisitions. The result is that we have United Kingdom externally owned assets which are higher than those of any other country, except Japan. I should have thought that that would make the hon. Gentleman, with his well-known nationalism, rather proud.