HL Deb 22 June 1981 vol 421 cc850-1

2.46 p.m.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the operation of the Competition Act 1980.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade (Lord Trefgarne)

Yes, my Lords. The Act provides a new stimulus to competition and efficiency in both the public and private sectors. A total of seven investigations under the new powers have so far been launched, four concerning possible anti-competitive practices, and three concerning efficiency in public sector industries. Further investigations will be made where appropriate.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I should like to ask him further about the numbers of investigations made. Are they not substantially fewer than were initially expected when the Bill was passed? I wonder whether my noble friend might enlarge upon the reasons for that. Would it appear that the present facilities will prove adequate? Will there be an improvement in the Price Commission's ability to monitor prices when they are coupled, as they should be, and as they are now, with the same monetary policy in order to reduce inflation?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we never believed in setting an arbitrary target for the number of investigations. We think that they should not be undertaken lightly. We are very satisfied with the careful and responsible way in which the Director-General of Fair Trading has used his new powers. We should, perhaps, remember that these procedures are still very new. But as for the question of prices, to which my noble friend referred, it is of course this Government's view that the market forces should much more be allowed to make their effect in this area although there are the powers under Section 13 of the Act.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, can my noble friend say yet whether there is any evidence, through the Office of Fair Trading, that pricing in the public sector is higher than in the private sector?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that goes slightly wide of the Question on the Order Paper, but the Government's concern about this matter is well known.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will my noble friend say in how many cases informal discussions with the Office of Fair Trading have resulted in voluntary changes in undesirable trading practices? Can he possibly say what proportion of the work of the Office of Fair Trading is done in this effective, unpublicised manner?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the number of cases in which those procedures have taken place. However, it is of course true that the Director-General has a number of informal contacts with all sides of industry on these matters and, of course, the very deterrent effect of the powers of the Bill are another important factor.

Lord Vaizey

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while many of us are very pleased with the careful and thoughtful way in which the Director is exercising his powers, the task of defeating monopoly is an heroic one and energy has to be put into this as an encouragement, and many of us would like to see this particular office considerably strengthened?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I shall certainly take note of what my noble friend says.