HL Deb 28 November 1995 vol 567 cc516-9

2.55 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the likely cost of the establishment and operation of the group of academics and Commission officials set up by the Commission in 1994 "to consider an EU approach on the strengthening of international co-operation on competition" (COM(95) 359 final, 22nd October 1995) and what are the names, nationalities and qualifications of the academics concerned.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, the UK permanent representation in Brussels has asked the Commission for this information. Its response will be sent to the noble Lord. In the meantime, I refer the noble Lord to the group's report which lists the names and professional addresses of the academics. It is, of course, in the House Library. On the nationality of the academics, Professor Immenga is German, Professor Petersmann is Swiss, and Professor Jenny is French, and male.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am most grateful for the response from the noble and learned Lord in which he informs me that, uniquely, the Commission will communicate with me direct on the matter. I certainly welcome that information. However, is the noble and learned Lord aware that I have a copy of the report on this question in my hands? It reveals the desire of the Commission that some information should be obtained, first of all, "bilaterally", then "multilaterally" and, finally, "pluralaterally". It states what kind of information should be obtained and how it might, under certain conceivable circumstances of "positive comity" and "negative comity", respectively, be used to the general advantage. Is the noble and learned Lord further aware that I also have with me the dictionary of the single market which, of course, refers to Eurospeak and that those three terms are new and are not in the index. Nor does the document give very much of a clue as to how they could be explained.

Will the noble and learned Lord give an undertaking that approaches will be made to the Commission to stop this flood of paper nonsense from outside the Commission coming into the various countries when it is of no conceivable use to anyone and when all it does is to keep Commission officials—who, in this case, are unnamed and acting on their own account—fully occupied?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I fear that the noble Lord is wrong. I believe that the approach which the report would wish to take is, first, that it should be bilateral, then pluralateral and, ultimately, multilateral. The noble Lord really ought to appreciate that the report was obtained from a number of academics and certain officials within the Commission. What the UK Government do, in accordance with other member states, is to support the view that there should be a working party to look at the issues raised by the report. Our concern—and this is why we wish to see a working party established—is not the terminology adopted in the report but the fact that, within it, there seems to be little or no empirical evidence for some of the problems in respect of which it seeks to put forward recommendations. What we wish to see identified are actual problems which need to be remedied. However, given the noble Lord's stance, I should have thought that the emphasis given in the first instance to the deepening of bilateral agreements was something that he would welcome.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend tell us what "co-operation on competition" means? If one is competing, how does one co-operate? Alternatively, is it co-operation on anti-competitive practices? I do not understand it at all.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, that is precisely the position. I am sure that my noble friend supports the reduction, as best we can, of all barriers to trade. One of the barriers which the report sought to address is the respect in which the failure to enforce competition policy, in itself, amounted to a barrier to trade. As I indicated, in our view there is an absence of clear, empirical evidence that that is indeed a barrier. However, it does not seem to me to be in any way contrary to the interests of this country to analyse whether there are such barriers and to consider what steps might be taken on a bilateral, pluralateral or multilateral basis in order to avoid them.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that I strongly approve of his previous answer? Does he not agree—this has nothing to do with some of the debates that are taking place as regards the future of the Community—that if the Community is to mean anything at all, it must be a Community in which there is free competition? Is not the point of studies of this kind—leading, we hope, to government action—to do precisely what he says, which is to remove barriers to trade of all kinds? Some of those barriers are subtle and require definite study to establish what they are. Competition policy is a favourite treadmill, is it not? Every time the Government, or their agencies, dream up ways of dealing with one kind of anti-competitive practice, industry discovers some more. Surely, therefore, one must agree that this kind of work is vital.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am not sure whether it is more damaging for the noble Lord to agree with me or for me to have the noble Lord agree with what I said. The important matter is that this was not an expensive report. The academics involved were not paid; indeed, some of them did not even claim their travel expenses. It is a report of that character. It is there to be studied by all those who have an interest in the subject. It is clear from the United Kingdom's standpoint and indeed that of other member states that a great deal of additional work through a working party requires to be undertaken. This report is not an example of one of those gross excesses which the European Commission is sometimes accused of. It probably cost less to set it up than to answer this Question.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that irrespective of what the report states, the competitive position of the United Kingdom would be gravely damaged if indeed we were to sign up to the social chapter or have a minimum wage?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend. However, in the study that I have undertaken of the report neither issue is addressed within it.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, would not one of the virtues of the minimum wage be the fact that these academics would at least have received something for their toil?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, what we seek is Oxbridge academics coming to London and waiving their travel expenses.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that I cannot let him off the hook as easily as that? Is he not aware that even the Ministers who have read this report cannot possibly understand what is in it anyway? The report finishes with the assertion that it presents a useful way of opening up further discussion on the matter. Surely, if the European Union is to mean anything at all, it should deal with practical problems. It does not require indefinite speculation by numbers of so-called qualified people who start a new language with no meaning in order to enunciate its policies. This is a meaningless document and the Commission should stop issuing a mass of paper which means nothing to anyone.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the Government are clear that we should work towards further liberalisation of world trade. The World Trade Organisation may be the best vehicle for doing that. It seems to me there is nothing wrong in an attempt of this kind to identify what the issues are. As I indicated, it is our view that they have not been properly identified on a clear factual basis. Therefore, we believe that a working party should be established to consider the matter further. The noble Lord can rest assured that no one is in any sense bound by the rather loose recommendations and conclusions of the report.