HL Deb 08 July 1987 vol 488 cc670-3

2.50 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they intend to publish the results of their review of competition policy.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, the review of mergers and restrictive trade practices policy is continuing. I am not yet in a position to say when results will be published.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response. I am sorry that no date is fixed for the publication, but I am encouraged to think that new thinking can still take place. Does the noble Lord recall the statements he made during the passage of the Banking Bill in your Lordships' House which referred to the competition policy review? He has said that the position of the banks and the banking system as a whole would be taken into account during the course of the current review of those matters.

On 6th April he said: it is almost impossible to conceive that an overseas bid for a United Kingdom clearing bank would not be referred". (Official Report,6/4/87; col. 818.) Since he is now the Secretary of State responsible for the review, and in the light of the proposed sale of the Clydesdale Bank, will he give the House his assurance that by the time the review is published both the statements that I have quoted will be honoured?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, that is a rather different question. The Director General of Fair Trading is considering the present position. I look forward with great interest to seeing his recommendation. I will consider it in the light of the circumstances prevailing at that time. The review is on mergers and restrictive trade practices. I am looking at the policy. I shall make a further statement as soon as I can.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

Is my noble friend aware that Question Time, when he answers, is rapidly developing into a series of debates, and that to examine subjects which come up in that way does not do justice to the subject or to the procedures of the House?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot agree with my noble friend.

Lord Peston

My Lords, has the Secretary of State looked at the annual report of the Office of Fair Trading, and in particular, the statement made by the Director General about the resources available to him where he claims that if money and manpower ceilings were to become too tight in relation to the demand put upon his office, then the taxpayer in his capacity as a consumer or as a trader would be likely to pay the price in other ways? Can the noble Lord assure this House that enough resources will be made available to the Director General so that competition policy can be pursued vigorously and expeditiously?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I have seen that statement. I further assure him that I hope and anticipate that sufficient resources will be available to him. I am aware that the two do not necessarily go together.

Lord Somers

My Lords, will the noble Lord explain why, if competition is one of the Government's aims, they have chosen for denationalisation all those industries where competition is impossible—for example, gas, telephones, the Post Office and various other things?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am not aware that the Post Office is on the denationalisation list. Electricity and gas are competitors in many of their fields. It is important to remember that each and every industry that has been denationalised has been operating better and more profitably than it did before.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in those circumstances, why is there such bitter criticism of the way in which British Telecom has been operating?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I seem to recollect that there was some criticism of telecommunications in the good old days of the 1970s.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the reasons why the privatised gas industry and other denationalised industries are showing better profits is that they no longer have to pay a substantial part of their profits by way of a Treasury charge? They no longer have to meet a Treasury surcharge.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, if the noble Lord looks at the accounts he will realise that there is a substantial amount of corporation tax coming in to the Treasury.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, although it may be true that in the 1970s there was a great deal of criticism of telecommunications, nowadays vast monopoly profits are going into private hands owing to the operation of public services.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, if the noble Lord is referring to the more than 1 million citizens of this country who are shareholders in British Telecom, then of course that is true. They are now funding British Telecom. I can remember clearly when that famous monopoly had 4,000 car telephones in the entire United Kingdom. Today, there are about to be hundreds of thousands of cellular telephones. I remember the days when the monopoly ensured that the Post Office could provide only one type of telephone. It was a trimphone or nothing. There is a vastly more open service today. If noble Lords opposite find that inconvenient, then I apologise.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that complaints in the telecommunications field have increased by 55 per cent?

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, would we not do well to remember that this Question was orginally about competition policy?

Noble Lords


Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, yes. This Question was originally about competition policy.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord's Answer to that Question and his unfortunate absence from the debate last night, is he prepared to comment on the sale of Today to News International in view of the Government's competition policy?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I think that it takes me to answer that question. The answer is that who answers for the Government on particular matters at any particular time is my responsibility. Any Member of the Government is entitled to answer on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. Having studied all the reasons, I decided that it was reasonable for my noble friend Lord Beaverbrook to give the answer last night. It was my decision. If the noble Lord wishes to criticise me, he is entitled to do so.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is it not rather surprising that the Secretary of State chose not to reply to a question put by the Leader of the Opposition? Surely he is entitled to a reply. In view of the Minister's supplementary answers, is it not a fact that every publicly-owned industry that has been privatised has been built up into a viable position under public ownership? Can he give me one example of where a loss-making industry was sold to the public?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I shall look into the percentage of complaints about British Telecom during the recent period if the Leader of the Opposition cares to put down a Question on that subject. I shall then come here armed with the information. It is true that no loss-making nationalised industries have been privatised. It is to the Government's great credit that we have managed to turn many a loss-making industry into a profit-making industry so that it can be returned to the private sector.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, returning to the Question, through the usual channels will my noble friend use his good offices to ensure that when this review—which on all sides of the House is considered important and which has been on the stocks since the days when my noble friend Lord Cockfield answered from the Dispatch Box—is published we can have a full day's debate on it?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, that is a matter for the usual channels.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, as the Leader of the House said in response to a [...]stion from the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that criticism could be directed towards him. Is the noble Viscount aware that we on these Benches—I think that I speak for other Benches also—are deeply dissatisfied with the way in which our questions about the takeover of Today have been handled?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I took into account all relevant circumstances, including the fact that my noble friend had made a Statement and answered questions on the matter in this House last week. I decided that in the circumstances, with all the engagements that were involved, it was the right course to take. I accept that I may have made a mistake. I make many mistakes, but I did it in the best of all possible interests. I did what I believed to be right in the circumstances. If I was wrong, well I was wrong.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I speak as a new boy in the House, but with all due respect to the Leader of the House, is it the case that it is the Leader of the House who decides whether or not senior Secretaries of State shall take part? Does he treat them like children?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, yes, it is.