HC Deb 09 May 2000 vol 349 cc786-97

'. Schedule (Competition test for exercise of bus functions) contains provision applying a competition test in relation to the exercise of functions relating to quality partnership schemes, ticketing schemes and subsidised local services.'.—[Mr. Hill.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hill

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 301.

Amendment No. 143, in clause 110, page 66, line 23, at end insert— '(5) Local services provided under a quality contract scheme made in accordance with section 108 shall be exempt from the provisions of the Competition Act 1998.'.

Government amendments Nos. 303 to 306 and Government new schedule 1.

Mr. Hill

New clause 14 brings us to a topic that has excited many commentators in connection with our bus policy proposals, and occupied the Standing Committee more than once: competition.

We undertook to table amendments on Report to deal with competition issues as they affect the three key local authority functions introduced or enhanced by the Bill: quality partnerships, ticketing schemes and bus subsidy contracts, including frequency enhancements. The new clause and amendments were prepared in full consultation with the competition authorities, the Office of Fair Trading and the Department of Trade and Industry. I am sorry not to have been able to give the House a little more time to consider them, but they do what we said they would do.

The new clause and amendments achieve three things. First, they provide a special tailor-made regime for the exercise of such powers—rather than the Competition Act 1998, in case that Act might be thought to apply. I think that that concerned Members at an earlier stage. Secondly, they allow a bus operator, for example, to go to the Director General of Fair Trading if that operator thinks that the local authority's powers have been used unfairly. Thirdly—this is, perhaps, the most important point— they require the Office of Fair Trading to consider not just any effect that there might be on competition but the wider public interest, including not only bus users but the community in general. For that purpose, we have included special public interest provisions tailored to the circumstances of bus operations, and the sort of benefits that local authorities will legitimately want to achieve through their use of bus powers. Those include better vehicles or facilities, service improvements and reducing or limiting traffic congestion, noise or air pollution. I hope that hon. Members will agree that those special provisions are much more appropriate and helpful to local authorities and to the public than anything in the Competition Act.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the specific new amendments and the way in which the Government are now handling the matter are of particular value in a situation such as that in Bristol, where the bus company has a virtual monopoly, where the public good, as he has indicated, is of special concern to the local authority and the strengthening of local authority's power is to the benefit of the passenger?

Mr. Hill

I understand my hon. Friend's broad point, but the thrust of the new provisions is not precisely in the direction that she has described. They are designed to deal with possible allegations or suspicions of anti-competitive practices—for example, when ticketing arrangements are introduced—and to create some protection for the public interest where those measures are introduced, so I do not think that they quite attain the objectives that she may hope they do.

The provisions that I have outlined are in paragraph 2 of the new schedule. That paragraph is the most important part of the provision; otherwise, the schedule is essentially procedural. It provides for local authorities or bus operators to apply to the OFT for a decision—the OFT is, of course, the Office of Fair Trading, but I think that that is a reasonably familiar acronym, which I propose to persist with—or the OFT can look at a case itself if it sees fit.

The OFT must publish any decisions, with reasons, so that people know where they stand. Properly, the OFT is required to consult interested parties before finalising a decision if it thinks that the competition test is not met. The OFT has powers of direction once a decision has been made, although I am sure that in the vast majority of cases any necessary solutions will be worked out voluntarily.

The schedule contains provisions for the OFT to obtain information. It merely echoes provisions in other such legislation and contains confidentiality safeguards. Again, I would be surprised if those were much needed in practice, but I hope that the House will agree that it would not be right if bus operators were able to get together at the expense of the public and to frustrate OFT inquiries.

In addition to the schedule, there are some other amendments. They are mostly technical, but also helpful. For example, amendments Nos. 301 and 304 provide that reducing traffic congestion can be a valid reason for a local authority to bring forward a quality partnership scheme, or to subsidise a bus service. That ensures consistency with the wording of the competition test in paragraph 3 of the new schedule.

Amendment No. 303 provides that a local authority can vary a ticketing scheme, rather than simply revoke it, as in the Bill at present. Amendments Nos. 305 and 306 are consequential drafting changes to provisions in the Transport Act 1985 to make "economy, efficiency and effectiveness"—the best value criteria—the factors that local authorities must take into account in promoting the use of public transport generally in their areas, thus ensuring consistency with their obligations in reaction to bus subsidies in clause 131.

Opposition amendment No. 143 seeks to make bus services provided under quality contract schemes exempt from the Competition Act. It is substantially the same as an amendment that was debated in Committee. As we made clear on that occasion, the amendment seems to be wholly unnecessary.

Once a quality contract scheme has been introduced, there is by definition no longer a competitive situation for bus operations. All local services within the quality contract area, unless exempted, will be operated under contract to the local authority. The Competition Act will therefore not apply.

We further made the point that, if a quality contract were otherwise caught by section 2 of the Competition Act, it would be excluded by virtue of paragraph 5 of schedule 3 to the Act, which states that conduct engaged in to comply with a legal requirement is exempted from the Competition Act. Either way, therefore, we see no need to make further provision.

I hope that my explanation of the Government amendments is helpful to the House. I hope, too, that hon. Members will feel that these promised amendments will help all concerned by providing a special competition regime that also takes proper account of the public interest objectives that local authorities can—indeed, should—have in the use of their powers.

I know that competition legislation has been of concern to many hon. Members. It may therefore also help the House if I add that, yesterday, the OFT sent out consultation drafts of the block exemption. The covering letter was sent to the rail industry as well as to the bus industry trade association and local government and underlined the point that the proposed block exemption will apply to multi-modal schemes, not only to the bus industry.

We believe that that is good news, and I am sure that it will be welcomed by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins), who has already made representations on behalf of the Manchester passenger transport executive. As I predicted in Committee, the OFT is taking forward a block exemption for bus and train ticketing schemes under the 1998 Act. The OFT has listened to representations. I hope that the House will find that reassuring.

Mr. Syms

In Committee, we spent considerable time discussing competition law. We did so because, if we do not get that matter right, the Bill's entire section on buses will not work. Representations on the Bill have been made by the bus companies, which are concerned that they will have to contend with both a competition regime—particularly under the Competition Act 1998, which came into force on 1 March and made things difficult for them—and the Transport Bill. The companies essentially felt that they were being caught between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The situation in Committee was not a happy one, primarily because we felt that the legislation would not work. I believe that the proposed regime will be helpful, and therefore welcome the Government's new clause, new schedule and amendments in this group. Nevertheless, the previous muddle was of the Government's own making, with two Departments going in two slightly different directions. The Local Government Association was very concerned about that muddle and made representations on it to the DETR.

The Opposition would like to see the quality partnership schemes work. For most people in the United Kingdom, buses are their only public transport alternative. The new regime will improve their chance of having such an alternative.

New clause 14 has been tabled at a relatively late stage in our consideration of the Bill. Have the bus companies been consulted on it? If so, did they have any comments? I am not an expert on buses—although I am a transport spokesman—but I am sure that the bus companies, particularly many of the major ones, have lawyers. As the 1998 Act provides for quite draconian ways in which company directors can be fined if they are anticompetitive, I am perfectly sure that those companies will wish to be consulted on the provision and have their views considered. If they have not been consulted, I hope that the Minister will reassure us that they will be before the Bill is sent to the other place. They should be consulted.

Have local authorities who have raised the competition issue directly with the Government been consulted on the proposed regime? Local authorities and bus companies are vital to operation of the Government's proposed regime. If they are happy with it, we would be happy.

11.15 pm

New clause 14 is sensible, and I am sure that the comprehensive new schedule I will meet the task. However, because of the conflict between two Departments, we have—as the Minister said—a tailor-made regime which I hope is robust.

The Minister said that the Office of Fair Trading has issued guidance on block exemptions. He said also that bus operators could go to the Director General of Fair Trading for directions, but there was no mention of the cost of doing so. Will there be such a cost on a company? If so, the House ought to be told today.

We welcome the Government's proposals and hope that there is the widest possible consultation. Bus operators must feel that they can move forward with quality partnerships and quality contracts in the knowledge that the regime will work and is robust. We wish the Government well on this because the travelling public want better services. The industry and local government want a degree of certainty that the new regime will work.

Mr. Don Foster

Like the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), I welcome the Government's proposals. The House will be aware that our amendment No. 143 would have much the same effect as the one proposed by the Government, but it is considerably less comprehensive.

I am disappointed that it has taken such a long time for the Government to come forward with proposals. In Committee on 29 February, the Minister told us that parliamentary counsel was busily drafting amendments in this regard. It has taken two and a half months for parliamentary counsel to bring this forward. I hope that time will show that it was worth the wait.

I am delighted that, at long last, we will begin to have a solution to a problem that was raised by many members of the Committee. The Minister was unwilling to accept a Liberal Democrat proposal that fares and frequency should be included in quality partnerships and quality contracts. The Minister agreed that it would be possible for a local authority working with transport companies in its area to produce an agreement on fares and frequencies, but that that would have to lie outside, but alongside, the statutory quality partnership or quality contract.

I understand that these amendments refer specifically to new quality partnerships and quality contracts, and do not refer to the non-statutory arrangements that may be made by local authorities with their various transport providers in the area. The Minister was asked about those non-statutory arrangements between a local authority and the transport providers in an area, and whether or not they could fall foul of the Competition Act. He said: I cannot give…that assurance. Such timetable agreements may or may not be in breach of the competition rules, but it is for the OFT to make inquiries into that and to come to its own decisions. Since such agreements do not form part of the Bill, it is hardly for me to make a judgment on them.—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 February 2000; c. 794.] I am sure that the House will recognise that a large number of the measures that a local authority may wish to take with transport providers in its area will refer specifically to fares and frequency. Indeed, on many occasions in Committee reference was made to the competition in some parts of the country whereby one bus company operates a particular timetable and another bus company introduces a service just a few minutes earlier to try to grab the passengers from the first company. Yet we know from experience that when two bus companies have agreed a timetable—one going on the hour and the other going on the half hour, for example—they have fallen foul of the Competition Act and the current work of the OFT. We hoped that the Minister would table an amendment that brought some comfort to local authorities and bus companies that any such arrangements that they sought to introduce to the benefit of passengers in a particular area would not fall foul of the Competition Act.

I seek some reassurance from the Minister that the provisions in the amendment, the new clause and the new schedule will ensure that arrangements in respect of fares and frequency will be treated in the same way as the other matters covered by the proposed provisions. I am delighted that we are making progress, but I am not convinced that all the issues have yet been covered.

Finally, in some parts of the country, including my constituency, local authorities wish to develop voluntary agreements with bus companies without introducing a quality partnership agreement. In some circumstances, particularly when fares and frequency are central issues, it is better to have a voluntary agreement that covers fares and frequency among other issues, rather than making them part of the statutory quality partnership. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister could give some comfort to local authorities such as Bath and North East Somerset council, which is trying to develop a partnership in respect of that dreadful subject that we discussed in Committee—tour buses—that there will be some exemptions from the draconian approach adopted by the Office of Fair Trading.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and other hon. Members in welcoming the Government's proposals. It might be helpful if I put in context my own experience of the operation of competition. Before being elected to the House I was, for my sins—I have many sins—the compliance officer in a large public company in the construction industry. I am conscious of the presence of the Minister for Housing and Planning, who is equally familiar with the construction industry, which is an important example of where the statutory competition provisions bite and are effective or not effective and which shows their effect on businesses and the directors of companies.

It is well known that in respect of a commodity product where one competitor is indistinguishable from another, there is every incentive—and good commercial reasons—to try to create a monopoly, albeit a small one in terms of the commercial market. That is the only way to secure the proper reward by price against the investment that has been put in. Of course, the market and consumers are always anxious for that not to happen. A prime example is the ready-mixed concrete industry, with which I am very familiar. There might be three ready-mixed concrete plants in towns in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, each desperately trying to occupy the five-mile radius—much further, and the stuff would set in the back of lorry—and create some form of commanding market presence to justify itself. I am talking about radial monopolies. There was an incentive, at times—wholly to be condemned—to carve up the market. There have been court cases demonstrating that.

This proposal is a way of derogating from the application of the recently introduced statutory requirements on competition, which I fully support—we shall wait to see how they work out in practice, having so recently been implemented. This is lineal monopoly behaviour. If we combine radial and lineal monopolies, this is a first in terms of the way in which competition and marketplace domination are defined.

As I said, I welcome the Government's approach to quality partnerships, contracts and the need to address through routes and ticketing so that we can provide for all our constituents a proper public service recognition, while at the same time encouraging the investment that follows a proper commercial base for bus services. I was concerned, however, when the Minister referred to a special competition regime that can be used by local authorities. Would that one day extend to taxi services? Given the way in which the Post Office has harnessed some of the quasi-bus services, to what extent does that potential derogation apply? It is important to have that clarified.

There is an element of wanting to have it both ways. The Government talk about joined-up government, but they are conscious that what the Department of Trade and Industry is producing is not quite so joined-up, as far as the Bill is concerned, as they might like.

Directors face enormous difficulties and anxieties if they are accused of anti-competitive behaviour under increasingly rigorous statutory requirements. I fully understand the derogation that is sought, and the way in which the Government want to test it through the new schedule. However, I am not reassured, given where such provisions might lead in other areas of commercial activity, and I look to the Minister for reassurance. There is a special public interest provision in the new schedule. Many areas, as well as buses and trains, might be considered a special public interest. For instance, if the Ministry of Defence commissioned a new structure for its service, that would clearly be in the public interest. When it comes to the ready-mixed concrete to be supplied, under this potential precedent, would the Competition Act 1998, implemented on 1 March this year, be prayed in aid in order to seek a derogation?

Of course, I am postulating. This is hypothetical. It is none the less important, not least because I do not claim to be an expert in this field, other than through experience. However, we all know that an army of lawyers is out there, ready to charge horrendous fees for giving advice. That is a major cost on businesses, which feeds through to the consumer. Therefore, we have an interest in seeking to bring forward relevant and appropriate legislation.

My concern is that this provision—even though it is well intentioned—could be prayed in aid and used as a precedent in relation to unforeseen activities in other commercial marketplaces. I worry that it would undermine the 1998 Act and measures introduced by another Department.

11.30 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

I declare an interest: I am the chairman of a bus company—Travel West Midlands, part of the National Express group.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) must forgive me for not following him down the interesting path that he took. The Standing Committee might have benefited from his expertise; our proceedings would have been considerably enlivened by a debate on the difference between a radial and a linear monopoly. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I would have immediately bowed out of that discussion on the grounds of lack of technical knowledge.

However, the hon. Member for Eddisbury made a relevant point on a matter that gave rise to much debate in Committee—as the hon. Member for Bath pointed out. The fundamental problem is that competition and integration do not make easy bedfellows. Although we all applaud the Government's intention of trying to integrate transport services in general and bus services in particular, it would be all too easy—as the hon. Member for Eddisbury reminds us—for that intention to fall foul of the Competition Act 1998.

That point deserves the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and I know that he will approach it with his customary courtesy and diligence. We need to know exactly where bus companies and local authorities stand vis-a-vis the 1998 Act, if we are to achieve the genuine integration that the Government want.

I suspect that the Conservatives are quite relaxed about that matter these days. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who spoke for the Opposition, was certainly extremely relaxed on the matter in Committee—as he was this evening.

When we discussed in Committee co-operation between local authorities and bus companies, I pointed out that we all want such voluntary agreements to be established and to work. The bus industry as a whole did not want fares and frequencies—for example—to become part of any statutory partnership. The industry feels that such fundamental matters, which have a direct, bottom-line impact, are best decided by the companies, although they—especially my own company—would seek agreement with the relevant local authority.

However, we need some reassurance that, having sought such agreement, we should not be hauled off to the authorities under the Competition Act. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury reminds us, the penalties faced by directors are—rightly—somewhat draconian. I declare another interest: I have no particular desire to be dragged off and arraigned if we came to a voluntary agreement with the local authorities and it fell foul of the Act. The question is relevant and well worth debate.

Furthermore, if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can answer that other question—on the difference between a linear and a radial monopoly—the House will be grateful to him. If we had held such a debate in Committee, not only might our deliberations have been enlivened, but our knowledge of such matters would have been considerably enhanced by the guidance of the hon. Member for Eddisbury on what is, I am sure, an enormously important difference—albeit one that I have never heard put to the test. From my long experience of working with my hon. Friend, I know that he is extraordinarily well educated, so he is in a better position than any other Member here to answer that vital question.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I have no interest to declare except to say that, for three happy years from 1982 to 1985, I advised the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport, which subsequently became known as the Bus and Coach Council. At that time, we agonised about many of the issues that have been debated tonight.

I shall speak to new schedule 1 and amendment No. 306. I listened carefully to the Minister's remarks, but I did not hear him address amendment No. 306. If he did and I missed it, I apologise to him. The amendment inevitably caught my eye because it would amend section 63(7) of the Transport Act 1985 by replacing the words from "so to conduct" to the end of the subsection with the words to have regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. I thought that our whole political lives were designed to have regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness so the amendment is motherhood and apple pie written into statute law. I can think of many clichés with which one would wish to amend Acts of Parliament. Will the Minister explain exactly what the amendment will do? It looks splendid, impossible to argue with—and therefore, I am afraid, profoundly suspicious.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) was charitable to the Government about new schedule 1. It is longer than many Acts of Parliament; it is a huge provision that contains many fascinating and surprising ideas. They are not necessarily wrong, but they are surprising.

Paragraph 16(1) of the new schedule states: The Director may charge fees in connection with the exercise by him of any of his functions under this Schedule. What are those fees and how much will they involve?

My hon. Friend's points were germane. What consultation has taken place? Why does paragraph 15 give the Director General of Fair Trading such an absolute defence on defamation? That provision appears to be very generous. Why does paragraph 9 exempt information made for the purpose of facilitating the performance of any function of the European Commission in respect of Community law about competition? That is extraordinary enough, but why does paragraph 4 need to spell it out. It says: In determining an application made under paragraph 3, the Director must take into account any representations made to him about the application. I thought that he would always take into account such representations. It is a long and complex new schedule.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

Has my hon. Friend seen paragraph 13 of the new schedule, which gives the director general the extraordinary power to take an authority that fails to comply with his orders "without reasonable excuse"—whatever that may mean—to the High Court? Presumably, if the authority fails to appear, it could be in contempt of the High Court. That is draconian at the very least.

Mr. Luff

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. The new schedule may meet with the approval of the industry, local authorities and all those involved, but it is an exceptionally long schedule to put into an exceptionally long Bill at this late stage. The Minister will need to reassure us that the consultations that I hope he has had with those who will be affected by the new schedule have produced a favourable result.

Mr. Hill

I take it that there are no more bidders in the debate.

I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for his warm welcome for new clause 14 and to the official spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), for what was, I suspect, his slightly less warm welcome. All the offers made were appreciated.

The hon. Member for Poole asked two questions. First, he asked about consultation with bus operators and local authorities. The new clause and the amendments will do what we said in Committee that they would do. It goes without saying that we keep in touch with the bus industry and local government. I was careful to explain our intentions at some length in Committee, so that the industry and local authorities could make representations if they so wished. We have certainly explained our intentions to the bus industry.

The hon. Gentleman also pressed me on the issue of fees for applications for decisions on the new competition test. Paragraph 16 of the new schedule gives the director general a power to charge fees in connection with the exercise of any of his new powers. That would include, for example, a fee for an application made to him under paragraph 3 of the schedule about whether the new competition test was met in any given case. The schedule contains no special procedure for setting fees. Any fees charged will be at the director general's discretion, and it will be open to him to choose not to set a fee in particular cases if he considers it appropriate.

I turn now to the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). I nearly called him the hon. Member for Wyre Piddle because of his proper obsession with that place—I shall return to the issue of obsessions later. He also referred to fees set by the director general. I imagine that they would be set at a level that takes into account the resources involved in determining a particular case. He made one or two suggestions and complained about the length of the new schedule. We have tried to make it as comprehensive as possible, and we are being damned for its length, but I dare say that if it had been short, we would have been damned for its brevity. I shall, in due course, return to other points made by the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Bath raised the status of fare and frequency arrangements that are not included in the quality partnerships. In Committee, we took to describing those arrangements as non-statutory codicils to quality partnerships. This point was also raised by my hon. Friend, and guru, the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). The hon. Member for Bath is correct: the new schedule does not apply to non-statutory agreements. The position is as I have stated it before, but I know that the Office of Fair Trading is always willing to talk constructively to anybody who wants to put proposals to it. It is not for me to speculate on particular cases.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman also mentioned quality partnership arrangements in connection with tour buses. I thought that we would be lucky if we got through the proceedings without a reference to tour buses or Eurocontrol. We have heard enough of both, particularly the latter, this evening. I say to the hon. Gentleman and his local authority of Bath and North East Somerset that we should remember that many non-statutory quality partnerships have already been successfully established, and the OFT has not objected. The track record is by no means completely unhappy. If Bath and North East Somerset council is in doubt, I offer it the advice, via the hon. Gentleman, that the OFT is always ready to talk.

Mr. Don Foster

The Minister is being helpful, but the point is that in new schedule 1 the Government argue that it must be demonstrated that non-statutory partnerships would secure benefits to the service users, and reduce or limit congestion and noise or air pollution. If similar benefits accrue from a non-statutory quality partnership, does the Minister expect that the OFT will be likely to approve such an arrangement?

11.45 pm
Mr. Hill

I understand the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's point, but I have to tell him that it is not appropriate for me to speculate at the Dispatch Box on a matter of that nature. It is a sensitive matter and Ministers have to be wary; it is certainly not a subject that I intend to explore, especially at this late stage in our proceedings.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury, who is indeed a most prolific correspondent on behalf of his constituents, warned of the dangers and temptations of monopolies, both linear and radial. As he acknowledged, the new clause is designed to enable us to strike a delicate balance between best value in transport provision and competition requirements. Again, it is not for me to speculate about the extent to which these provisions might act as a precedent for other arrangements. At one point, he spoke about the Ministry of Defence and about poured concrete—a subject of which I confess complete ignorance.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the special competition regime would apply to taxi services. The short answer is no; the new clause is solely about buses. The slightly longer answer is that in certain circumstances, a taxi can run as a bus service; however, I shall spare the hon. Gentleman an exposition of taxi law—a subject of immense complexity with which I have to wrestle constantly. The amendment is deliberately designed to address bus issues alone, and I make no apology for its exclusivity, even in respect of ready-mixed concrete. I do not accept that the proposals pose any threat to the Competition Act 1998.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East raised the question of agreements between companies. As I have said, the most important thing is to consult the OFT. The key issue is the consumer: in consumers' interests, the OFT—indeed, all of us—should be wary of cosy deals between operators, which might be to their advantage and not to that of passengers. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not countenance such deals, but we must not forget the possibility of their arising and we must always remember that the consumer has priority.

Mr. Snape

Will my hon. Friend not utter a word of encouragement? I understand the dilemma in which he finds himself: on the one hand, the Government want to encourage local authorities and bus operators to come to voluntary agreements; on the other hand, he appears to want to wash his hands of the consequences of such agreements. However, what about saying to the OFT that such agreements should be encouraged, if they are in the interests of the consumer? If no such action is taken, bus companies are likely not to bother with such agreements, lest they become mired in difficulties.

Mr. Hill

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the bus companies might take an initiative in the matter. Having said that, I am sure that those in the OFT will read very carefully my hon. Friend's remarks in Hansard and reflect on them.

Mr. Don Foster

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) has got the Minister on the ropes. The Minister must respond to him. It cannot be right for the Minister to ask the House to support him, please, in the amendments that get round the Competition Act because, by referring to statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts, they will ensure benefits for service users and will limit congestion, noise or air pollution, yet when people want to do so on a voluntary, non-statutory basis, for him to say, "It's nothing to do with me, Guy. That is dangerous territory; I shouldn't enter into it." Why should he not enter such territory?

Mr. Hill

I am reminded of my oft-quoted remark that there is nothing more deadly than the friendly intervention. I shall not be tempted along that path.

We should not forget that the Competition Act has a public interest provision—if I can call it that—albeit in more general, less tailor-made terms than the proposed new schedule. Section 9 is an example.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill

Aha—the hon. Gentleman, who is not notorious for his interest in bus matters, obviously spots a potential vulnerability and leaps to his feet.

Mr. Jenkin

I am most interested in these bus matters.

I just wanted to inquire, on an entirely friendly basis, how happy the Minister's colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry are with the proposed arrangements.

Mr. Hill

That is an easy one. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a genuinely friendly intervention. I assure him that these novel and important provisions have been drawn up in complete consultation and collaboration with the DTI, which is entirely happy with them.

I hasten on to deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire. He talked about special provisions in what he complained was a long and complex new schedule, but the powers in the new schedule are less dramatic than they seem. It is a matter simply of getting the procedures right; they have precedents. The OFT needs fall-back powers in the event of people obstructing it, but we very much doubt whether they will be needed. We hope that they will not, but it is right for legislation to cover a wide range of circumstances. There is protection, for example, for commercially sensitive information in paragraphs (8) and (9).

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire referred to amendment No. 306. Although I mentioned it in my opening remarks, I can imagine that the general interest in my speech was so intense that he did not entirely pick up my comments. Amendments Nos. 305 and 306 ensure consistency with clause 131(2). Amendment No. 306 introduces the best value test of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, which reads across to the generality of local government legislation. It offers alternative wording to the phrase "not to inhibit competition" in the Transport Act 1985, which is felt to be less helpful than the new formulation. It essentially links current thinking about the criteria that ought to be adopted by local authorities in their policies. With that very comprehensive response to the debate, I commend the new clause to the House

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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