HC Deb 30 October 2002 vol 391 cc967-71

Lords amendment: No. 265, in page 322, line 23, at end insert— (2) The Secretary of State may treat any consultation carried out with the President of the Competition Commission Appeal Tribunals (before the appointment of the President of the Competition Appeal Tribunal) as being as effective for the purposes of section 15(1) as if it had been carried out with the President of the Competition Appeal Tribunal.

Miss Melanie Johnson

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 266 to 366.

Miss Johnson

I hope that the House agrees to Lords amendment No. 265. The remaining amendments in the group, Nos. 266 to 326, are to the transitional, consequential and repeal schedules. The vast majority of them are consequential to various sectoral enactments such as the legislation covering gas, electricity and airports, and they follow the template of amendments made on Report to the legislation covering broadcasting and telecommunications. These sectoral enactments include a mechanism by which the licence modifications proposed by the relevant sectoral regulator but disputed by the licensee can be referred to the Competition Commission. Such references currently rely on procedural provisions in the Fair Trading Act 1973 and the Competition Act 1998 that are being modified or repealed by the Bill.

In addition, the amendments cover the merger and market transition provisions. I can give more detail on weights and measures if hon. Members so desire.

Mr. Forth

I hope this time that I can tease a little more in formation out of the Minister. It is not good enough that she should stand up and say that she is cross at being kept here so late, that she does not propose to take interventions or answer questions.

Miss. Johnson

The right hon. Gentleman is generous enough to put into my mouth words that never crossed my lips, and meanings that never existed. I do not know where he gets his ideas from.

Mr. Forth

Perhaps we shall have to read Hansard tomorrow to see what was said, although the tone and sense will not come across on the cold page. However, I shall try a little harder to coax the Minister into giving us some more information. I always thought that the point of this exercise was that the Minister should reply to the debate.

Mr. Redwood

The Minister would not give way to me earlier when I wanted to raise a point of great interest outside the House. She did not seem to care about people whose interests need to be protected by the Bill. I think that my right hon. Friend is right.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's support. The record will show how charmingly and fully the Minister responded to the debate. I hope that we will build on that as we proceed.

This group of amendments, which the Minister has attempted to portray as innocuous and technical, covers 56 pages of text in the Bill and 60 clauses. I am always nervous when asked by a Minister to accept that material of that length and complexity, with all its attendant implications, should be nodded through because it deals with technicalities. Some of us have been here long enough to know that that is rarely the case.

I want to start with Lords amendment No. 265, the lead amendment in the group. I have tried hard to understand it, but so far I have failed. I invite the Minister to explain it, in her charming way, to the House. I shall read out the amendment, as I want it on the record, so that when the Minister comes to explain it we can relate its content with the way in which she has been prepared to help the House.

It reads: The Secretary of State may treat any consultation carried out with the President of the Competition Commission Appeal Tribunals (before the appointment of the President of the Competition Appeal Tribunal) as being as effective for the purposes of section 15(1) as if it had been carried out with the President of the Competition Appeal Tribunal. I am not an entirely unintelligent individual. I have been here for a while and have read a number of such texts in my day, but that one has defeated me completely. There is probably a simple explanation. It probably has profound hidden meaning. In a case such as this, the Minister owes it to the House to give some explanation of what the hell this is all about. Otherwise, I do not think that the House should be prepared simply to say, "Oh well, this is okay then." So, that is my first simple request to the Minister.

When we look at the 55 pages that follow that amendment we realise that references to some important matters, such as time limits and powers of investigation, are hidden in this complex text. When I see references to such powers, I am always more than a little nervous. Time and again when we consider such provisions and powers of investigation, when we read the details we find references to attendance of witnesses and production of documents … enforcement of powers under section 106: general … penalties … appeals in relation to penalties … recovery of penalties and so forth. The Minister says that this has all been dealt with in a different context, so we are importing it into the Bill and that will be okay. I am not sure that that is a sufficient explanation. It will not necessarily do. The Minister may have to say a little more about how she believes that that very complex wording relates to what has gone before. For example, is she going to tell us that the words on those 55 pages—about 60 clauses, by my reckoning—are identical to some provisions that have been in force for some time and are tried, tested and proven? Are they beyond doubt and dispute? Or, is she going to tell us that there is sufficient that is new in this text to require more scrutiny?

I do not know which is the case, because the Minister did not share that with us. She did not tell us the provenance of the wording. Therefore, we are in the dark as to whether we are being expected to accept something that is new, or something that is tried and tested, has been imported from other legislation and is deemed to be appropriate in this case. One could go through that text in some detail, but given the time limitations, sadly, that would be inappropriate.

Lords amendment No. 290 refers to new section 46A Enforcement of notices under section 46". Subsection (1) states: The High Court may, on an application by the OFT, enquire into whether any person … has refused or otherwise failed, without reasonable excuse, to comply with a notice". When one picks out such a phrase, almost at random, from this huge morass of words that we are expected virtually to nod through, one suspects that matters about which we are entitled to be uneasy or that certainly deserve further explanation are hidden within it.

Mr. Greg Knight

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth

I was about to conclude, but I will give way just this once.

Mr. Knight

My right hon. Friend has made a valid point. Had the Minister spent a little more time explaining in her opening remarks the ambit of the provisions, it would have shortened rather than lengthened the debate. My right hon. Friend's concerns would have been answered and he might not have felt the need to raise these important matters.

I hesitate to say this, as it is a maxim among lawyers that free advice is worth what one pays for it, but these seem to be fairly minor matters that are consequential on other issues, so the volume of the amendments should not trouble my right hon. Friend too much.

Mr. Forth

I defer to the legal expertise of my right hon. Friend, who has obviously studied these matters much more closely than I have. If he is satisfied that these matters are relatively detailed—I will not say "trivial" as that would be the wrong term—and of limited impact, I am prepared to accept his advice and judgment.

However, I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that the Minister owes the House an explanation of what she and the Government understand to be the importance of those words, so that, at the very least, we shall know in future whether we are being expected to accept something that is of relatively minor impact or whether the impact might be much wider.

Even with an eye to the clock, I hope that the Minister can be a little more fulsome than she felt able to be in respect of the last group and that she can give the House some reassurance as to where we are going with the large volume of material that falls within this group of amendments, described as "minor and consequential". We are always owed an explanation as to whether "minor and consequential" means what it says. One does not have to be too cynical, or too much of a disbeliever, to suspect that sometimes something greater and of more importance lies behind those words.

That is my humble request, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that you agree that it is not unreasonable and I hope that the Minister can be a little more forthcoming on this group than she was on the last.

Mr. Knight

I shall speak briefly, as I want to hear the Minister's response. The amendments seem to be fairly minor and consequential, but I have a question about subsection (5) of Lords amendment No. 290, on page 57. It states: The High Court may punish the defaulter as it would have been able to punish him had he been guilty of contempt of court. That is a draconian power. Will the Minister confirm that the subsection is a replacement or a redrafting of an existing provision? If it is, I am happy. However, if it is a new provision, she should certainly refer to it in her opening remarks and she should be prepared to revisit it if it causes difficulty or injustice in the future.

Miss Melanie Johnson

Amendment No. 265 is required to allow the Secretary of State to fulfil the consultation requirements imposed by clause 15, prior to making the rules of the Competition Appeal Tribunal. That is its purpose.

I hope that helps Opposition Members who had difficulty in understanding the wording. I am surprised at their difficulties because I know how expert the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is in reading legislation, but I accept his humble assurances as to the difficulties that he has set out to the House. I hope that he will agree that my explanation was fulsome and detailed and gave him all the information that he needs.

I commend the amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments 266 to 326 agreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Mrs. Anne Campbell, Mr. Mark Hoban, Miss Melanie Johnson, Mr. Jim Murphy and Mr. Andrew Robathan; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.—[Mr. Woolas.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.